Carolina Panthers

Panthers graybeard is healthy, looking to leave tank on empty at end of final season

Panthers’ Ron Rivera on Julius Peppers, Daeshon Hall, James Bradberry, Ryan Kalil

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera speaks about Julius Peppers, Daeshon Hall, James Bradberry and Ryan Kalil going into the 2018-19 season on June 12, the first day of Panthers training camp.
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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera speaks about Julius Peppers, Daeshon Hall, James Bradberry and Ryan Kalil going into the 2018-19 season on June 12, the first day of Panthers training camp.

There are a few more wiry gray hairs poking out of Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil’s auburn beard these days, and he believes he knows why.

“It might have been coming in a little bit more the last couple of seasons,” Kalil said. “Cam’s added a few grays in there, as well.”

Kalil was joking with the reference to quarterback Cam Newton, who has been on the receiving end of a few of Kalil’s renowned pranks over the years.

Kalil wasn’t in much of a joking mood the past two seasons, when injuries limited him to a total of 14 games. But the five-time Pro Bowler is in better spirits this spring as he prepares for his 12th and final NFL season.

“I feel great. I feel strong. Having fun. Enjoying my teammates, enjoying the new coaches,” Kalil said Tuesday after the first of three minicamp practices. “I like the offense we’re running and just working hard.”

Kalil, 33, told the Observer in January that 2018 would be his last season.

The fact that he’s actually getting to train prior to it is different than last offseason, when Kalil was recovering from shoulder surgery and wasn’t cleared to resume lifting weights until late in training camp.

Kalil ended up playing in only six games last season as he dealt with a neck issue that — for competitive reasons — he’s declined to elaborate on.

In a better place

Physically speaking, Panthers coach Ron Rivera is confident that Kalil is in a better place this year.

“I think he’s in a situation where having gone through what he’s gone through and rehabbed the way he has, to where this is a good year for him offseason-wise in terms of being involved in everything and looking like he has no residual (effects) from it,” Rivera said.

“I’m excited to see how he can play for us this year.”

When healthy, Kalil has been among the best centers in the league.

His five Pro Bowl selections are tied for the most in team history, and his 129 career starts trail only Jordan Gross among Panthers’ offensive linemen. Gross’ 167 starts are a team record for any position.

Kalil would have been in position to challenge Gross’ mark if not for the time lost to injuries. The former second-round pick missed 11 games with a foot injury in 2012.

“A lot of it’s luck. A lot of it’s being able to train and get your body right. But there’s no telling,” he said. “There’s plenty of guys here who are young and spry and running around, and something might happen. Something’s happened to some of these guys that are rehabbing. It’s a physical game.”

'The true leadership'

Besides being without one of their best blockers for much of the past two years, the Panthers also lost the player responsible for making the calls and setting the line when Kalil went down with the shoulder and neck injuries.

“That’s the value,” Rivera said. “And then there’s the intrinsic things that you really can’t account for, and that’s the true leadership. He really is one of the finest leaders I’ve been around.”

Kalil — along with Thomas Davis and Julius Peppers — is among a group of Panthers greats who have said or strongly suggested this will be their final season.

Kalil says he’s enjoyed the small things more this offseason, knowing everything will be a last OTA or last minicamp practice.

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“I’m just enjoying the process and the preparation each and every day,” he said. “Not in a hurry to get to the weekends or to get to next week or to get to minicamp or training camp. Obviously for me this season being able to train and workout and not rehab has been huge. And doing it with my buddies as well — I forgot how fun that was.”

While announcing his four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy, Davis suggested he might play beyond this season.

But Kalil laughed when asked if he might have a change of heart.

“Probably not, no,” he said. “I’m ready to empty the tank on this season.”

And maybe pick up a couple more gray hairs along the way.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly talks about the changes to the coaching staff of the Panthers on June 12, the first day of Panthers training camp.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

Cam Newton throws a pass to Christian McCaffrey and offensive line drills.