It's commonly accepted that the offensive lineman position is one of the most taxing and least glamorous in all of football. Despite being essential to a team's success, very few become household names, and when the quarterback gets sacked, we immediately demand to know why that left tackle whose name we don't even know couldn't hold his block. Yet, when said QB throws a 30-yard bomb, we immediately praise either the passer or the receiver without considering that part of the reason he was able to calculate that pass was because his lineman managed to hold off the defense for a few seconds longer. While an uneducated fan might not be able to fully appreciate the contributions of their team's O Line, those who are closely familiar with the sport know just how crucial it is to have five quality guys up front. Today, we'll be taking a look at the guys who will be clearing a path for DeAngelo Williams and offering protection for Cam Newton. Here's your preview of the 2014 Carolina Panthers offensive line.
Note: since the Panthers have not yet released an official depth chart, all strings are projected.
With the retirement of Jordan Gross, the Panthers lost an 11-year veteran and a three time Pro-Bowler and gained another hole in their roster. Now it's looking like that hole will be filled by Byron Bell, who for the past three seasons had been the team's starting right tackle. At 6'5" and 321 lbs, Bell, who went undrafted out of New Mexico, is actually a slight improvement over Gross (6'4" in, 305 lbs) physically. Other than the size advantage, Bell is still a big question mark, however. While Gross himself has said that he believes in his replacement, critics question whether Bell is quick enough for the position, and many have pointed out that he allowed most of Mario Williams' 4.5 sacks in the Panthers' Week 2 game against Buffalo last year. However, it's possible that a move back to the position the he played in high school and college will be enough to get Byron Bell back on track.
Close behind Bell is Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who had nine starts at right guard in 2013. Chandler, who went undrafted out of UCLA, could play right tackle as well and alternated with Bell in OTAs. At 6'4" and 310 lbs, Chandler seems like a good fit for any position on the Panthers' O Line, and probably would've been fine on defense as well.
This position will probably be one of the most solid on the whole team if--and that's a big if--its tenants can stay healthy. Last season both Amini Silatolu (torn right ACL) and Edmund Kugbila (knee and hamstring injuries) were sidelined early on in the season, leaving the Panthers with Travelle Wharton and a couple of practice squad call-ups. Silatolu, a former D-II All American at Midwestern State, is the projected starter once again, but Kugbila, last year's 4th rounder out of Valdosta State (also D-II), is a trustworthy backup who should be able to hold down the fort should another problem arise. Regardless of who wins the starting job, both of these guys are approaching the prime (for a lineman) of their careers (Silatolu is entering his third year; Kugbila is entering his second), and if they can stay healthy, the LG shouldn't be an issue for several more years.
Trying to debate whether or not Ryan Kalil will be the Panthers' starting center is like trying to debate whether or not Cam Newton will be the starting quarterback. Carolina's 2nd round pick in 2007 (59th overall) is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, having been selected to his fourth Pro Bowl and named an All Pro by the Associated Press. At 6'2" and 300 lbs, Kalil is a driving force for the offensive line, due to both his skill and his veteran knowledge. If there's one person who's going to hold the remodeled line together, it's this guy.
Kalil's current backup looks to be Brian Folkerts, who recently played fullback for the Arena Football League's San Jose SaberCats and went undrafted out of D-II Washburn. However, in an emergency, Trai Turner, the Panther's third round pick out of LSU, could step in and fill this role. Turner is favored to win the right guard job, but at 6'3" and 316 lbs would be an acceptable center.
When the Panthers' turn came to pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, many thought the team would spend its first or second rounder on a left tackle to replace Jordan Gross. Instead, the team waited until the third round to draft a guard from LSU named Trai Turner. Turner, who was named second team All-SEC last year, doesn't have much competition for the starting job unless the Panthers decide to switch things around some more or maybe re-sign Travelle Wharton. Since no indication has been given that either of these things are going to happen, it seems safe to say that this rookie will be thrown right into the heat of the trenches.
The only other competitor for the starting job is Chris Scott, which is beginning to seem highly unlikely. Although he started eight games in 2013, he has been out of shape recently, which sets him way back. As a matter of fact, the only reason the Panthers were able to pick him up last summer is because he failed conditioning tests at Buffalo. Unless he straightens himself out, he certainly won't be starting anytime soon, and he might not even be on the roster.
Another position hampered by injuries, the RT was slated to be occupied by the 6'3" 315 lb Garry Williams in 2013 before he blew out his knee in the season opener against Seattle. Now that he's healthy again, Williams, who is entering his sixth year in the NFL, will compete for the starting job against Nate Chandler. Chandler, who was forced to play right guard last year as a result of the various injuries, is a versatile player who could squeeze in anywhere the Panthers need him. Right tackle looks to be one of the deeper positions on the offensive line, and we may not have a definite starter until the last few weeks before the season starts. Or, as another option, Ron Rivera could have these two split time at first to prevent any further complications with Williams' knee. Whatever the case, both of these guys are perfectly capable of holding their own on the right side, and should help put together another quality O Line.