Assessing the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Next up: Offensive Line.
Three things to know
▪ The Panthers gave up the sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL: Despite a patchwork group put together to salvage an injury-riddled position, Carolina’s offensive line only gave up 32 sacks in 2018. But that number is somewhat deceiving, given the Panthers’ propensity to throw short passes and Cam Newton’s mobility. Carolina’s offensive line also allowed Newton, Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen to take several hits over the last few weeks of the season, which ultimately led to season-ending injuries for each quarterback.
▪ This offensive line was dominant in the run game: The Panthers were first in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt and fourth in total rushing yards — and that’s a stat that stands up to scrutiny. Christian McCaffrey was excellent in his first season as the Panthers’ lead back, but a team doesn’t average 5.1 yards per carry without great offensive line play.
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▪ There’s at least one major change coming in 2019: Longtime anchor Ryan Kalil, who is retiring after 12 seasons as the Panthers’ center, is retiring. Still in question are injured 2017 starters Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams, and 13-game fill-in starter Chris Clark.
On the roster
▪ Trai Turner: Voted to his fourth Pro Bowl after anchoring the right side of the Panthers’ line, Turner tied a season-low with four penalties across 13 games this season — the first of a four-year, $45 million extension he signed in 2017.
▪ Taylor Moton: The right tackle earned the first 16 starts of his career this season. At 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, Moton has ideal size for a tackle and is a candidate to take over at left tackle should the team decide to move on from Matt Kalil and Clark.
▪ Greg Van Roten: Another first-time starter, Van Roten played all 16 games for the Panthers at left guard, the only offensive player to play every snap. He remarkably did so without committing a single penalty. He’s in a contract year in 2019 and at 28, he could play his way into a multi-year deal.
▪ Tyler Larsen, Matt Kalil: Larsen should get the first crack at the Panthers’ starting center job in 2019 — that’s the easy part to predict. Whether the team decides to bring Kalil back at left tackle is another. He signed a five-year, $55 million deal in 2017 but underwhelmed that season before spending all of 2018 on injured reserve.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Daryl Williams, Panthers: The best-possible free agent for the Panthers is already in town. Williams was one of Pro Football Focus’ top tackles in the league in 2017 but spent this past season on injured reserve after hurting his knee in Carolina’s season-opener. If he’s made a full recovery, it’d be wise for the team to try to keep him around.
▪ Matt Paradis, Denver Broncos: If Carolina doesn’t want to commit to Larsen at center, Paradis has been one of the NFL’s best over the past three seasons. It’s possible Denver decides not to bring him back — he broke his leg in Week 9.
▪ Bobby Massie, Chicago Bears: Massie graded as Pro Football Focus’ No. 29 tackle during the 2018 season. However, given the salary he’ll likely command, he should only be an option if Carolina can’t come to terms with Williams.
▪ Greg Little, Mississippi: If the Panthers’ front office decides offensive line is the team’s biggest issue, they can spend the No. 16 pick on one of three players who will likely be available, starting with the behemoth out of Ole Miss. At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, Little is anything but his namesake. He needs to be coached up on technique but the physical gifts are there.
▪ Cody Ford, Oklahoma: Ford anchored arguably the nation’s best offensive line and could be available midway through the first round. Drafting him would allow the Panthers to move Moton to left tackle and move on from Daryl Williams if Williams hasn’t recovered from his knee injury. Ford has a tendency to spectacularly finish his blocks although, like Little, his footwork will need refining.
▪ Yodny Cajuste, West Virginia: Cajuste is strong against power and speed rushers and had plenty of pass blocking experience at West Virginia over the past three years. He’s powerful at the point of attack and could go anywhere in the first two rounds, depending on how he tests during draft preparation season.
The bottom line
After losing its starting left and right tackles, the Panthers’ offensive line was one of the most overachieving position groups in the NFL. However, once the team shut down Cam Newton, it became clear his mobility masked some of the line’s flaws. When both Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen were knocked out of consecutive games to end the season, improving that offensive line vaulted up the Panthers’ offseason priority board.
While there’s some concern regarding whether Williams can return to his 2017 form after missing the entire 2018 season, Carolina would be wise to re-sign him if he’s healthy. The Panthers might wait until after the draft to decide what to do with Matt Kalil, who has 82 career starts and 30 combined games in 2016 and 2018, playing all 16 in 2017. There will be a quality tackle available when the Panthers pick at No. 16, but pay attention to the NFL combine and Senior Bowl in the coming weeks. Those events should determine when and how often Carolina addresses its offensive line in the draft.