With injuries to two of their guards, the Carolina Panthers will trot out an offensive line Sunday against Seattle featuring four undrafted free agents flanking Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.
But veteran guard Fernando Velasco looks at it a little differently.
“That’s not true. The rest of us are eighth round,” Velasco said jokingly this week. “That’s what I tell everybody: I’m eighth round. They just forgot to call my name.”
Outside of Kalil and maybe left tackle Byron Bell, the names of the Panthers’ starting linemen likely don’t roll off the tongues of NFL fans.
When Bell and right guard Trai Turner were injured in a 38-17 loss to Green Bay last week, they were replaced by a pair of undrafted rookies: former Ohio State starter Andrew Norwell and French Canadian David Foucault, who was drafted fifth overall – by Montreal in the Canadian Football League.
While Bell is expected to play against the Seahawks, Turner is out with knee and ankle injuries. Norwell, 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, is scheduled to make his first career start in place of Turner.
“He’s gangly looking, a little awkward looking,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Norwell. “Then you watch him get in his stance, you watch him with his hand placement.”
Norwell was a first-team, All-Big Ten selection. But concerns about his strength and agility hurt his draft stock, and he wound up signing with the Panthers as a free agent.
The Panthers have drafted a guard in the fourth round or higher each of the past three years. Amini Silatolu, a second-rounder in 2012, will miss his second consecutive game with a calf strain, but hopes to return next week. Edmund Kugbila, a fourth-round pick in 2013, is on injured reserve for the second consecutive year, and Turner was taken in the third round this year out of LSU.
Their injuries have created openings for Norwell and Velasco, who has started 32 games over the past two-plus seasons, including five this year for the Panthers.
Velasco was a two-year starter at Georgia before going to the Tennessee Titans as a free agent in 2008 when all 32 teams passed on him in the seven-round draft.
“You can definitely use it as a chip on your shoulder. I like that role, being an underdog and just trying to prove everybody wrong, but also not wanting to let your teammates down,” Velasco said. “No matter what round you’re drafted in, the guy you’re blocking, he doesn’t care. He’s just trying to get a sack.”
The Seahawks’ pass rush has taken a hit following the free agent losses of defensive end Chris Clemons and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. But Seattle still has capable edge rushers in Michael Bennett (three sacks) and Cliff Avril, who are Nos. 2 and 10, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ rankings of the top pass-rushing ends.
It will be up to two more undrafted players – Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler – to keep Bennett and Avril off quarterback Cam Newton. Bell started his first three seasons at right tackle after going undrafted out of New Mexico, while Chandler was overlooked coming out of UCLA – as a defensive lineman.
After starting at guard last season, Chandler moved to tackle. While Bell is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, Chandler agreed to a team-friendly, three-year extension in June worth $5.12 million.
“I’m not worried about how much money I’m being paid or ‘I should have been drafted.’ I’m not really worried about my ego,” Chandler said. “I’m just worried about doing what’s best for this team.”
Kalil said the steady play of the undrafted linemen is a testament to the team’s personnel department and the work of offensive line coach John Matsko.
Playing with a chip on their shoulders isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, according to Rivera.
“Some guys had things to prove, some guys had things to prove to themselves,” Rivera said. “It’s a good group, but it’s a different group. And we’ll see how it pans out this week because this is a heck of a defensive front they’re going to face.”
Chandler says the line will be ready.
“We’re not high-paid guys. We’re not first-rounders. We’re a bunch of guys that are going to work hard and try to do the best for our team and set the tone for our offense,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got to do this week.”