The joke around Greg Van Roten when he first signed with the Carolina Panthers last summer was simple:
How exactly do you pronounce his name?
“I get Rotten a lot,” Van Roten (pronounced ROAT-en) said after practice Wednesday. “People think it’s a good football name.”
But while the jokes surrounding his name haven’t changed in the past year, Van Roten’s standing on the team certainly has.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Because of training camp injuries to starting right tackle Daryl Williams (torn MCL) and left guard Amini Silatolu (torn meniscus), not to mention the offseason departure of Andrew Norwell, last season’s starting left guard, Van Roten has been thrust into the Panthers’ first-team offensive line.
And while the Penn graduate — Van Roten is also the team’s only Ivy Leaguer — played primarily at center in college and his previous professional stints, he’s spent most of his time in the second half of training camp at left guard.
With backup center Tyler Larsen out with a hyperextended left elbow and starting center Ryan Kalil on a limited snap count during his final offseason, Van Roten has been left to juggle two positions.
But as Van Roten explained Wednesday, making the transition from center to guard has actually been easier because of his knowledge of both spots on the line.
“Honestly for me, I find that moving from center to guard, it’s helpful to know center. You know what the center sees, you know how he sees the defense, and you kinda know what he’s going to call before he calls it,” Van Roten said. “You have that confidence, you’re not waiting like, ‘Hey, what are you seeing?’ You know what to expect.”
‘Next man up’
For someone with Van Roten’s backstory, he has been the ultimate “next man up.”
After going undrafted out of Penn and bouncing from the Packers to the Seahawks, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Van Roten actually found himself out of football entirely in 2014. He spent the year coaching with his high school team in Long Island, working out and staying ready for a call-up at any time.
After a 2015 NFL combine for veterans produced nothing, Van Roten knew his opportunities were dwindling.
“I worked out, stayed ready, hoping my phone would ring,” he said, “and when it didn’t, I kind of figured I needed to do something else. Canada was pretty much the only option at that point. I needed to build my football resume.”
So Van Roten went north to the Canadian Football League for two seasons, a move he credits today with helping him get back to the NFL. The added repetitions allowed him to mature and develop as a player, not to mention gave him plenty of solid film.
Finally, after a quick stint with the Jaguars, Van Roten found a home with Carolina. He played in 10 games last season, primarily on special teams, but also saw a handful of snaps as a backup lineman. Then in January, the payoff: a two-year contract extension ... and a professional fit.
“This truly was my last opportunity,” he said.
Eyes on the present
Silatolu will eventually return from injury and challenge Van Roten for the starting left guard job again, as will undrafted free agent Brendan Mahon, who has impressed so far.
But like in his year away from football, Van Roten isn’t focused on what might be, or what could happen. If he had, he wouldn’t be in the position he is in now.
Instead, he’s maintaining the same attitude of improvement that he has carried since his first days in a Panthers uniform. That, more than almost anything else, will determine his effectiveness in his go-round as a starter in the NFL.
“I’m going to fill in for as long as they need me. If it turns into something longer term, I’m ready for that, as well,” Van Roten said. “They gave me a chance to step in, and I’m making the most of it.”