With another of his offensive linemen headed back up I-85 for further medical tests in Charlotte, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera stood in front of a group of reporters Tuesday and discussed the team’s shrinking O-line depth.
Rivera used the expression “fingers crossed” and said he hoped the Panthers would be lucky in the case of left guard Amini Silatolu, who left Tuesday’s practice on a cart after developing what Rivera referred to as a sore leg.
The Panthers were only kind of lucky.
Medical tests revealed Silatolu has a torn meniscus in his left knee and will undergo surgery, the team said later Tuesday. Sports medicine doctors generally say it takes a minimum of four to six weeks to recover from such procedures.
That timeline would could put Silatolu back sometime during the first month of the season.
Silatolu has dealt with health issues before. He’s had three season-ending injuries in six years — a wrist injury as a rookie in 2012 and ACL tears in 2013 (right knee) and 2015 (left knee).
And while Silatolu avoided season-ending surgery in this case, he becomes the second offensive line starter to be sidelined with a serious injury before the team plays its first exhibition.
Silatolu, a seven-year veteran, was leading the competition at the left guard position — at least in part because would-be guard Taylor Moton was moved to right tackle (granted, his natural position) two weeks ago when Daryl Williams tore his MCL and dislocated his kneecap.
Williams was a second-team All-Pro in 2017 in what was his best season. He’s been rehabbing in Charlotte and hopes to return this season without having surgery.
Before he’d learned the extent of Silatolu’s injury, Rivera was asked when he’d start to be concerned about the depth up front.
“If we lose anybody else,” he said.
“If they come back with bad news (on Silatolu), obviously we’ll be concerned. We like where we are right now. We think we’ve got solid depth and we’ve got a couple of young guys we really have high hopes for, as well. So we just have to be really smart and hopefully lucky a little bit, too.”
The news on Silatolu could have been worse. But the loss comes at a position that already was one of the team’s biggest question marks.
The next Norwell?
The Panthers didn’t make any major moves to address the loss of All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell when the former undrafted free agent left for a five-year, $66.5 million deal with Jacksonville.
That could come back to bite them … unless they’ve discovered their next Norwell.
Brendan Mahon, like Norwell, went undrafted despite starting several seasons for a Big Ten power. Mahon thinks a knee injury that ended his 2016 season at Penn State was the main reason he was passed over.
It took Norwell about half of his rookie season to unseat Silatolu as the starter, although Mahon will be getting an earlier jump on things. Rivera said the 6-4, 315-pound Mahon (pronounced man) would start Thursday’s exhibition at Buffalo if Silatolu can’t play.
“I’m going to attack it just like I attack everything else, just like I attack practice and games in the past,” Mahon said. “Working on my technique, my footwork and everything and play the style of football that I like to play and the Panthers’ style of football — hard-nosed football.”
Something Rivera said that’s a bit disconcerting: Mahon is getting the nod over another undrafted rookie — Taylor Hearn from Clemson.
The Panthers re-signed Greg Van Roten and brought in former Vikings lineman Jeremiah Sirles on a 1-year contract during the offseason. But Van Roten has been working mostly at center, and Sirles has been slotted as a backup at both guard and tackle.
‘Keep on fighting’
Trai Turner, the Pro Bowl right guard, says what the Panthers are going through is not unusual.
“It’s always something that’s going on. We’ve just got to keep on fighting,” Turner said. “Don’t know exactly what’s going on with (Silatolu). Hopefully it’s not serious. We have some guys in the room that just have to step up.”
Rivera says Moton has done well in practice since taking over for Williams. Moton, a second-round pick out of Western Michigan in 2017, played sparingly as a rookie with reps as an extra blocker and on the PAT/field goal unit.
“You see him getting more and more confident each day,” Rivera said. “He’s a powerful, stout guy. He’s strong and moves his feet well. And he’s a mauler. That’s what you’ve got to be on that right side. That’s what Daryl is for us. He’s a mauling type guy.”
The code-red moment
Any concerns the Panthers have about their line would go full code-red if they lose their starting center again.
Ryan Kalil missed parts of the past two seasons with shoulder and neck injuries, forcing Tyler Larsen to make 15 starts. Kalil says he’s feeling strong this summer after a good offseason.
But you get the sense the Panthers are doing everything they can to will Kalil to the finish line in his last season. Rivera indicated Larsen will start Thursday against the Bills.
Losing Kalil for any significant stretch of time would only compound matters for a team that’s already down a right tackle and a left guard.
For now, the Panthers have to look for solid play from a couple of promising young linemen and hope their luck doesn’t run out.