Tread carefully, here, Carolina. Tread as carefully as a big man with a knee injury.
The Panthers’ starting left tackle, Matt Kalil, was placed on injured reserve on Sunday afternoon. Because he remained on the active roster past 4 p.m., he is eligible to return in eight games.
And now, the Panthers must figure out how to re-shuffle the line.
At left tackle, we will now see the future in action. Taylor Moton, Carolina’s second-round pick in 2017, is as bright as they come and built well for the position at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds. He has thus far managed to fill in as a stacked tackle, at left guard, at right tackle when starter Daryl Williams got hurt, and has since been playing left tackle in place of Kalil. He looks incredibly promising.
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But at right tackle, Carolina had to place fill-in player Jeremiah Sirles on injured reserve on Saturday. Unlike Kalil, he is not eligible to return.
So the Panthers are left with fourth-year tackle Corey Robinson, for whom they traded a conditional 2020 seventh-round pick on Saturday, undrafted free agent guard/tackle Brendan Mahon, and Amini Silatolu, who is rehabilitating a torn meniscus but who Rivera said last month was further along in his recovery than Williams.
These are the players who Carolina must consider as they prepare to host the Dallas Cowboys in their season opener on Sunday, even though the temptation to try Williams must be strong.
Williams is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, after tearing his right MCL and dislocating his patella on the first weekend of training camp in late July. The Panthers haven’t provided a timetable for William’s return since the injury, but the team website said in its release of Kalil’s injury that Williams “could be available for Week 1.”
But that’s overly optimistic, and to rush Williams would be a risky decision by Carolina.
A cautionary tale
Williams is a 6-foot-6, 330-pound tackle whose step-foot is his right. His knee injury was serious, despite the fact that he was able to avoid surgery.
The 2017 saga of Washington offensive lineman Trent Williams comes to mind (and was pointed out Sunday on Twitter by Dr. David Chao, the former team doctor for the Los Angeles Chargers).
Trent Williams played through a similar knee injury that kept him off the field sporadically last fall and ultimately required surgery, with a seven-month rehabilitation process.
It’s much too early to know whether Daryl Williams will ultimately require surgery. He practiced for the first time with teammates on Sunday, as did Silatolu.
That’s great news for Williams, who is coming off his best season in which he earned a second-team All-Pro nod and who is also in a contract year.
But it absolutely does not mean it’s a healthy or wise decision to put him on the field just yet, and risk re-injury.
Especially without giving Robinson, a player whom Rivera said had been evaluated closely by general manager Marty Hurney in recent weeks, a shot.
Use the ‘versatility’
Head coach Ron Rivera said after Sunday’s practice that the Panthers have modified both Silatolu and Williams’ workouts this week. And Williams was non-committal in the locker room when asked if he’d be ready to go, though he said the team was “definitely” being cautious.
So Carolina must do what it can to keep from inviting a little more catastrophe at a position that has seen all too much of it since Michael Oher’s 2016 concussion.
It’s time to tread carefully, and get creative. Rivera lauds the “positional versatility” of the Panthers’ linemen all the time.
It’s time to use it.
Let Williams continue to progress through practices and at least try Robinson on the right, perhaps with some stacked protections on that side.
It doesn’t have to be that way forever.
But it’s too early in the year to risk losing Williams again, as positive as his progress has been.
It’s a long season, and Carolina needs him for the meat of it. The Panthers have playmakers on both sides of the ball and a healthy Cam Newton. There’s early optimism that this is a group who could make a postseason run.
They have to have a healthy line to get there.