The Panthers welcomed back a pair of Pro Bowl offensive starters following their bye week – although it sounds like one of them is closer to returning than the other.
Center Ryan Kalil and tight end Greg Olsen, both of whom have missed eight of the first 10 games, were back at practice Monday following the long weekend off.
Olsen, who broke a bone in his foot in a Week 2 win against Buffalo, ran routes and caught passes from quarterback Cam Newton.
He’s eligible to come off injured reserve this week and expects to play Sunday against the Jets, as long as he doesn’t experience any setbacks.
But Olsen said the early signs were encouraging.
“I haven’t done a live rep in nine weeks. So I think for the first day I was really happy with how everything felt,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just about getting your legs under you a little bit and just getting your body used to moving around and playing football vs. just training.
“We don’t have a lot of time. We’ve got a week to get that football acclimation back. But I feel good after the first day.”
The Panthers on Monday designated Olsen and speed receiver Damiere Byrd as their two players designated for return from IR. Byrd, who has recovered from a broken forearm, is eligible to play vs. the Saints on Dec. 3.
The situation with Kalil seems less certain.
The five-time Pro Bowler played in the opener against San Francisco, then was sidelined for five weeks with an undisclosed neck injury. He returned for a Week 7 loss at Chicago, but only made it through the first quarter before aggravating his neck.
Kalil, 32, who played in eight games in 2016 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, says he feels better than he did a month ago. But he and Panthers coach Ron Rivera both stopped short of saying Kalil would be ready to play vs. the Jets.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go before Sunday,” Kalil said. “But that’s the plan is to get out there and see how it feels and then make a decision as we get closer to the game.”
Rivera indicated Kalil had more hurdles to clear before returning to game action.
“There’s a whole bunch of other things that have to go on in the process as far as Ryan’s concerned. So we’ll see how that is,” Rivera said. “But it was encouraging to see him out there and he worked very well.”
Kalil thanked the Panthers for giving him a chance to work through the injury rather than putting him on IR, which likely would have ended his season.
“The tough thing with injuries is sometimes you need time and in a football season you don’t have time,” Kalil said. “I’m grateful for the Panthers that they let me stay on the roster and didn’t put me on IR, and gave me a chance to come back. Just anxious to get back out there, get back in the lineup and help the team win.”
Center Tyler Larsen, who has played well in place of Kalil, was on the stationary bike during the portion of Monday’s practice open to the media. Larsen injured his foot last week against Miami, although the injury is not considered serious.
The 45-21 victory over the Dolphins represented the Panthers’ most complete offensive game of the season. They racked up a franchise-record 548 total yards and their 45 points were more than they’d managed in the previous three games combined.
Still, Rivera said getting some reinforcements could provide a “very big boost” to an offense that is coming off back-to-back, 200-yard rushing games for the first time in team history.
A healthy Olsen would allow Ed Dickson to resume more of his blocking responsibilities, and getting Byrd back would help make up for the speed the Panthers lost at receiver last week when rookie Curtis Samuel went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
“We’ve kind of come together the last few weeks as an offense,” Rivera said. “There’s been a lot of positive signs and we’re a completely different team than we were three, four, five, six weeks ago. I think being able to add Greg back into the mix and when Ryan’s ready to roll, I think that helps us, too.
“And who knows, maybe in another week or so we’ll have Damiere Byrd back up with some more speed on the outside. There’s a lot of good things that can come for us as far as the offense is concerned.”
Olsen was cautiously optimistic about teaming with Kalil to give the team a spark.
“You can never assume anything in this league, where you’re just going to pick up where you left off,” he said. “I think getting Ryan back would be big, hopefully I can get back and contribute. But I think any time you get guys back who have played a lot of games it’s obviously positive.”