Among the list of concerns for this Carolina Panthers team, offensive line has to be near, if not at the top of the list.
Coach Ron Rivera acknowledged as much after practice Monday, saying he was “absolutely concerned,” about the team’s current depth across the line. That came after left tackle Matt Kalil, who struggled in the team’s second preseason contest, missed practice for the second straight day while the team evaluates him for an undisclosed knee injury.
Add in the existing injuries to right tackle Daryl Williams (torn MCL/dislocated patella) and left guard Amini Silatolu (torn meniscus), and just three weeks out from the Panthers’ season opener against the Cowboys, the team is missing three starting linemen.
Then there’s center Ryan Kalil, who will retire after the 2018 season and has been on a limited snap count in training camp and the preseason.
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All of which leaves right guard Trai Turner, the fifth-year pro out of LSU, as the lone point of consistency on the offensive line.
“It’s very important to have someone that’s there that’s a constant, that you can rely on,” Rivera said Monday. “You know, it’s been good to see Trai go through it this year and kind of be that guy that’s stepped up.
“You have to have some continuity somewhere, and Trai, being an All-Pro, is a type of guy who gives you some of that continuity.”
Turner’s high level of consistency on the field — he’s been a Pro Bowler three straight seasons, and signed a four-year contract extension last year as a result — is just one piece of the puzzle, though. Aside from being Carolina’s most dependable lineman, someone new offensive coordinator Norv Turner can trust, Turner’s position as the last man standing means other responsibilities fall to him, too.
Say, for instance, like keeping his injured teammates integrated with the team.
“You just stay the same person,” Turner said Monday. “You don’t change. I kid with them, I laugh with them, I joke with them — everything’s the same. When I can see them, I see them, and when they’re doing their treatment, that’s no different than me getting ready for practice.”
“To my knowledge, nobody is out for the season. ...You just keep them in it because the season goes by real fast, and before you know it, they’ll be right back in it.”
It’s those sorts of interactions — the human ones, not necessarily anything football related — that makes a guy like Turner so valuable at this juncture. While he admitted watching his teammates go down with injuries was “one of the toughest parts of the game,” Turner also knows he has to help teach and meld whatever combination of linemen the team trots out.
Until Kalil’s recent absences, that has meant Taylor Moton filling in at right tackle and Greg Van Roten at left guard. Backup center Tyler Larsen has also seen plenty of snaps with the first team, but he recently missed a few practices with a hyper-extended elbow.
“You just have to work with one another, you know? You have to build it up,” Turner said. “Sometimes it’s in a shorter time span than others and the turnaround is quicker, but the job must get done.”
Carolina often preaches its “next man up” mentality. But in a situation like this, especially ahead of Friday’s preseason exhibition against the New England Patriots, that sort of thinking can be put to the test.
Rather than worrying about it, though, Turner said he is just making the most of every rep. He said chemistry isn’t something that comes overnight, so why pretend?
“It’s definitely snap by snap,” Turner said. “If you get the most snaps you can with a person, the better you’ll know how to perform with that person and next to that person. Ultimately, that’ll help the confidence of you guys together and working as a team.”
Take Greg Van Roten, for example, the third-string center who has flashed in his short stint as the team’s starting left guard. Turner won’t have the same chemistry with Van Roten as he did with Silatolu, nor the same as he had with last year’s starter, Andrew Norwell.
But that, for now, is OK. Even with the Patriots game a few days away, there’s still three weeks worth of first-team reps for Van Roten before the Cowboys come to town for the regular-season opener.
The crucial thing for Turner, and for the Panthers’ offensive line in the interim, is to utilize that time rather than dwelling on who is missing, he said.
“It is good to have continuity in practice, but our coaches teach a starter’s mentality,” Turner said, “so whatever goes on, guys are ready to go.”