Carolina Panthers

Inside Greg Little’s trial by fire with Panthers, and his teacher who lived the same

Panthers rookie OL Greg Little at minicamp

Carolina Panthers rookie offensive lineman Greg Little, a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft, talks on Day 2 of the team's rookie minicamp. He says he can't wait to put the pads on and show a "mean streak" some critics say he lacks.
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Carolina Panthers rookie offensive lineman Greg Little, a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft, talks on Day 2 of the team's rookie minicamp. He says he can't wait to put the pads on and show a "mean streak" some critics say he lacks.

Even during the cloudiest portions of Carolina Panthers spring workouts, tackle Taylor Moton always had a shadow:

Greg Little.

Little signed his rookie contract Tuesday having recently completed mandatory mini-camp. While financial terms were not disclosed, based on figures from the NFL’s slotted salary structure for draft picks, at No. 37, Little’s four-year deal is estimated to be worth about $7.6 million.

When the Panthers traded up in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft to select Little, it was with the hopes he could contribute from day one. General manager Marty Hurney remarked the night of the draft that Little could compete for playing time immediately.

“We think he has all the skills to be our starting left tackle for a long time,” Hurney added.

That appears to include this season, which means Little’s progression from raw-but-talented prospect to starting NFL tackle is being fast-tracked. As such, wherever Moton went during mini-camp, Little followed. The two would block each other during drills, then chat on the side afterward.

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Carolina Panthers rookie Greg Little (74, left) works against Parker Collins (76) during a drill in the first session of rookie camp at the team’s practice field on Friday, May 10, 2019. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Think of it like a crash course in pass protection ... and run blocking ... and being a professional... and, well, everything that comes with playing left tackle at football’s highest level.

As a second-round tackle himself back in 2017, Moton knows Little’s task as well as anyone.

“Daryl (Williams) was a big part of helping me transition from college to the pros, just getting to watch him work day-in and day-out from OTA’s and then in the season,” Moton told the Observer during mini-camp. “Ultimately I just want to help (Little) out as much as I can ... That’s what paying it forward is all about.”

Of course, that means praising Little when he excels and coaching him up when he struggles. With Little matched up against first-round defensive end Brian Burns during team drills, Moton has had to do both. On certain plays, Burns’ elite first step got the better of Little. On others, Little’s athleticism helped him stonewall Burns.

Given Carolina’s stable of pass-rushers — which also includes Bruce Irvin, Mario Addison, Christian Miller, Efe Obada and Marquis Haynes — there are only more challenges for the rookie in future workouts.

It’s a growth process, Little understands, and one he appreciates Moton assisting him with.

“He gives me little critiques here and there, just to help me out,” Little said. “He sort of lets me learn lessons the hard way, and then he comes help me after.

“Like if I lose, he tells me why I lost and how I can win the next time.”

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The Carolina Panthers traded up to select tackle Greg Little in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The other element to Little’s growth curve is the tutelage of run game coordinator John Matsko. Matsko has a reputation for squeezing every bit of talent from his players, but naturally that sort of teaching doesn’t always come with a smile.

Adjusting to professional coaching like that is something else Little will learn over time, coach Ron Rivera said.

“Taylor, having gone through it most recently, the wrath of coach Matsko, I think it’s been really good for him to put his arm around (Greg) and say, ‘Hey, it’s going to get better. Coach is just trying to push you because he wants the best for you,’” Rivera said. “Which I truly appreciate, because coach Matsko will push him to his limit and will help him to find out how good he can be in this league.”

That baptism by fire, both on the field and in the classroom, is intended to refine Little’s talent as quickly as possible. The knock on him coming out of Ole Miss was that he lacked an edge, something both Hurney and Rivera were quick to dismiss after the draft. Little, too, took issue with that criticism.

Once training camp starts up July 25, he’ll get his best opportunity to dispel that notion for good. Three key faces on the offensive line — free agent center pickup Matt Paradis, along with right guard Trai Turner and left guard Daryl Williams — are recovering from injuries but expected to participate in team drills. Quarterback Cam Newton is too, as he continues working back from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January. Protecting Newton is atop Little’s to-do list.

He’ll have to prove he’s up to the task in Spartanburg, and do so against Carolina’s revamped defense. But to Moton, who spent his rookie year mostly on the bench before starting last season, that sort of rude introduction leads to the quickest growth — which is exactly what this team needs of Little.

“That’s the best way to do it in my opinion,” Moton said. “The best way to learn is by doing it.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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