Top Offseason Priority for Carolina Panthers Is Offensive Line

Charles Edwards@@CEdwards80Contributor IJanuary 15, 2014

The Carolina Panthers are in the process of preparing for the offseason and building for 2014. The Panthers surprised many by completing a 12-4 season and clinching the NFC South before bowing out against a red-hot San Francisco team in the divisional round of the playoffs. Despite their surprising year, a lot of work remains to be done for a team trying to assert itself as one of the league's up-and-coming franchises.

Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman has his work cut out for him over the next few months. While trying to find cap room to re-sign a few key free agents entering this year's market, he will have to determine which area of need must be the priority of the offseason. If Gettleman stays true to form, he will address the offensive line before the start of offseason training activities (OTAs) and camp.

There is sure to be an endless debate about which part of the team needs to be the focal point of the offseason. There is no doubt the offense could use improvement, but that is where most people stop agreeing with one another. The split comes down to whether the offensive line or the receiving corps should be upgraded this spring.

Granted, a case can be made for both sides. However, the success of any offense begins in the trenches and whoever wins the battle up front tends to see their side of the ball come out on top. That is why Carolina must make improving their offensive line their first priority of the new league year.

There are a few factors that make pursuing an offensive lineman in free agency or the draft more pressing than trying to land a wide receiver.


Gross Uncertainty

Veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is at the end of his contract and has made it clear that he will either retire or return to Carolina. At 33, he still has something left in the tank and is a valued leader of both the offense and the team.

LT Jordan Gross: "If I play next season, it will be here."

— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 13, 2014

Still, if he were to go, that leaves a very big question mark at a position charged with protecting Cam Newton's blind side. The ideal situation has Gross returning for a season or two with the Panthers bringing in a rookie he can mentor as a replacement.

Recent history has shown that rookie linemen taken by Carolina in the draft have been both injured and need to grow into the offense as perennial mainstays. Offensive guards Edmund Kugbila and Amini Silatolu are still young, but they have yet to prove themselves as solid anchors on the line as injuries have kept them out of action.

Drafting a young and talented tackle would be an excellent strategy as it gives the line a cornerstone to build around and can provide Newton will a reliable blocker for much of his career. As mentioned before, protecting his blind side and winning the war in the trenches will be vital to the success of Carolina's offense.

While the future of Gross has yet to be determined, there are still the numbers to take into consideration.


Carolina's Offensive Line Numbers

The job of an offensive lineman is protect the quarterback, open up running lanes and blow up defenders at the line of scrimmage. If a play is executed well, they did their job right. Carolina's offensive line wasn't terrible, but they had their moments during the season where they appeared overmatched.

The unit finished in the middle of the pack when it came to giving up sacks. During the 2013 campaign, the Panthers offensive linemen gave up 43.0 sacks. That was good enough to be tied for 10th in the league. Another number to consider is the number of times they allowed Newton to be hit. Opposing defenses were able to get to the Carolina quarterback 61 times, which by league standards wasn't too bad as they ranked 24th in that category.

However, the primary concern for the line can be attributed to their inability to open holes at the line and provide the Carolina running backs with room to run. As a team, the Panthers were able to rush for 2,026 yards. Their running attack was good enough to rank 11th in the league. However, factor out the rushing yards from Newton (585) and the trick plays involving the wide receivers and that total drops to 1,397 yards.

That number only bests six other teams which all failed to make the playoffs: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Atlanta.   

Carolina's coaching staff does not want to see Newton running the ball all the time, but unless the line can help out the running backs, there will not be a fair balance to keep defenses guessing. 

The Panthers were able to find the end zone 14 times on the ground, which was good enough to finish 7th in the league, but if you took away Newton's six rushing touchdowns, Carolina is near the bottom of the league with a paltry eight touchdowns.

Once again, the line cannot afford to let Newton to continue carrying the ball on designed or improvised running plays. They need to be able to do more for the running backs and it appeared they struggled mightily in that regard. Losing Newton for a considerable amount of time would be extremely detrimental to the offense as they would become one-dimensional. 

Carolina only had one game where a running back eclipsed 100 yards on the ground. That was DeAngelo Williams in the Panthers' 38-0 beatdown of the Giants in Week 3. Interestingly enough, he never scored despite rushing for 120 yards.

Another thing to consider was the lack of focus in their first playoff game in five years. The Panthers offensive line was beat up and dominated by a San Francisco defense that was able to hit Newton eight times and sack him five times. The Niners only allowed 93 rushing yards on 24 carries.

Being stuffed at the line in a couple of key red zone drives and giving up back-to-back sacks on a critical fourth quarter series served to be the difference makers in the outcome. If the need to improve the Panthers offensive line wasn't present before that game, it definitely was after the final whistle was blown.


Age and Injuries

The average age of the Carolina starters on the offensive line is 28. Gross is the oldest at 33 and Travelle Wharton is right behind him at 32. Ryan Kalil is 28 and on the other side of him, the Nate Chandler and Byron Bell are both 24. The weak side of the line is at the stage where being over 30 is considered old.

Once again, it makes sense to look for Gross' replacement in this year's draft instead of assembling a makeshift line that could be detrimental to both the success of the offense and Newton's health.

Wharton could still be a key cog on the line, but like Gross he is on the wrong side of 30.  If Gross were to stay, it wouldn't be shocking to see Carolina look at drafting an offensive guard. Wharton is a free agent and it makes sense that the Panthers could begin the rebuilding process on the weak side of the offensive line, but bringing back one of those guys could be a good move to maintain cohesiveness. 

Carolina still has Kugbila and Silatolu returning in 2014, but the question will be whether or not they can stay healthy and contribute to the offense. Kalil returned from an injury that kept him sidelined for much of 2012, but he was able to recover and turn in a Pro Bowl caliber year.

Chandler and Bell are both wild cards as each presents their own unique questions.

Chandler converted from defensive tackle to become a guard due to the shortage of players at the position. Whether or not he remains on the offensive side of the ball remains to be seen. That decision could be determined on the healthy and effectiveness of either Kugbila or Silatolu.

Bell is a streaky kind of player at right tackle. He has those games where he is overmatched (Buffalo in Week 2) and he has those games where he is an unstoppable force (New York in Week 3). It's a fair assumption he could remain in place while the Panthers try to upgrade the other side of the line. However, he still needs to provide a consistent level of protection and help open up some running off the edge.


Draft Day

Carolina will be picking 28th in the 2014 draft this May. There will be seven players who should have first round stock split between the offensive tackle and offensive guard positions. Four of those players could still be on the board when the Panthers are on the clock.

In contrast to the other position of need, wide receiver, there are only four receivers who are bona fide first round prospects. The Panthers position on the draft board will take them out of the running for the top three receivers in the draft.

Combined with the players who will be available and Gettleman's drafting strategy (he likes building his lines), it would appear the smart money would be on taking a lineman in the first round. Of course, fans shouldn't be shocked if he picked linemen with the team's first two picks.

No matter how you look at it, Carolina will have to improve its offense if they are to compete next year and beyond. The defense is in a good place and if the guys responsible for putting points on the board can become just as potent, the Panthers will be a very dangerous team.


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