When he was breaking into the NFL in 2007, Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil had several veterans willing to show him the ropes.
Offensive linemen Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner all took an interest in the second-round pick from Southern Cal, as did quarterback Jake Delhomme.
As Kalil enters his 12th and final season, he wants to pay that forward by mentoring and counseling the Panthers’ young linemen.
Kalil, 33, has always looked out for young guys — he literally wrote the book on it (“The Rookie Handbook,” published in 2016). But with Kalil nearing the end of his NFL journey, his encouraging words and pearls of wisdom are taking on more meaning to those who are benefiting from them.
Tyler Larsen, who has been Kalil’s backup the past two seasons, says he’s soaking up as much as he can from the five-time Pro Bowler.
“He’s the best center in the league, he really is,” Larsen said. “Every little question I have, without a doubt I’m going to go to Ryan and try to figure out what the best thing to do is.
“I’m just trying to set my game up and try to get at least somewhat where Ryan is, which I have a long way to go. I’m one of the most lucky guys in the NFL right now, to play underneath someone like that.”
Kalil pulled Larsen aside during Thursday’s practice at Wofford to explain something following a 9-on-9 drill. That’s been commonplace throughout Kalil’s career, as coaches and teammates attest.
“That’s just something I try to give back to the younger guys, even if they’re not asking me, the guys that I think have a shot at having some longevity in this league,” Kalil said recently. “I try to impart some of that wisdom to them and just pay it forward that way.”
Kalil remembers hearing about Gross’ welcome-to-the-NFL moment — getting put on his back by Julius Peppers when Gross was a rookie in 2003. When Kalil sees a young offensive lineman have a bad rep or a tough practice, he tries to lift him up.
“I think the hardest thing is earning your confidence in this league. It’s a big jump from college to the pros. And the faster you can trust yourself, the faster you can find your footing, the better off you are,” Kalil said. “It’s easy to sort of get down on yourself. You get humbled pretty quickly in this league.”
Kalil speaks from experience.
In his second career game against Houston, Kalil started at right guard and gave up three sacks, including two to Texans rookie defensive tackle Amobi Okoye. Kalil remembers getting yelled at by Delhomme on the sideline.
“Amobi Okoye made me look pretty bad and I was down on myself for a while. Took a couple games to kind of get out of that funk, bounce back and finish the season strong,” Kalil said.
“I got some more opportunities toward the end of that season (at center), and then I got to stay in that spot ever since,” he added. “That’s a story I definitely share with a lot of younger guys.”
Little lessons everywhere
But Kalil’s mentoring is more than just picking guys up and patting them on the backside. A cerebral player who makes the offensive line calls based on the defensive looks, Kalil has a knack for pointing out things a young guy might miss.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera called Kalil an invaluable part of the organization.
“You’ve got a veteran guy who shows everybody how to do things the right way. He’s smart and just a bright football player,” Rivera said. “So any time he sees something — little nuances that a young guy might take for granted — he can make these guys realize how important that little thing is, that little detail.”
Rookie guard Brendan Mahon, an undrafted free agent from Penn State, says he has had a “ton of conversations” with Kalil through the first week-plus of training camp. Mahon says Kalil has been a great asset, both in the meeting room and on the practice field.
“Coming off when you get the nod and the ‘good job’ from him, it’s a really good feeling,” Mahon said. “But when he takes you off and teaches you — maybe you did this wrong or that — you really know that he cares. And he’s been doing a great job.”
‘A great professional’
Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil was Ryan Kalil’s original apprentice when the two were growing up outside Los Angeles. Matt is 4 years younger than Ryan, and followed him at both Servite High and Southern Cal.
“He’s definitely always been kind of a mentor,” Matt Kalil said. “I used to joke with him because I’m the little brother, but he’s also like my second dad. I think him having children early on, I’m kind of like one of his kids.”
Matt Kalil says he hasn’t tried to change his brother’s mind about retiring after this season, calling it his decision. Okoye, the former Texans’ defensive tackle from Ryan Kalil’s draft class, didn’t realize this was the final year for the Panthers’ center.
Okoye, whose career was cut short by an autoimmune disease, says he beat Ryan Kalil with a couple of “chop-club-rip” pass-rush moves in his two-sack game in 2007. He watched from afar as Kalil improved his technique and became one of the top centers in the league.
“He’s a great professional,” Okoye said. “Of course when you face somebody, you scout them. And it was a pleasure playing against him.”
Kalil says improved health and the ability to train properly during the offseason were the big reasons he came back after two injury-marred seasons in 2016 and 2017. He’s feeling good and has taken to running about 20 yards down the field after many plays at camp.
Matt Kalil says he hasn’t noticed his brother getting particularly nostalgic during his final camp. He called him “the same old guy” — which is to say, Ryan Kalil is still helping his teammates become better players.
“He’s been helping us. Even last year when he wasn’t playing, he’s playing that important role of helping us out and being that extra eye,” Matt Kalil said. “People don’t know how valuable that is, especially with his experience and everything he’s done in the NFL.”