After an 11-season, 167-game career with the Carolina Panthers, left tackle Jordan Gross will retire from the NFL. His departure from the team cripples the offensive line and leaves a gaping hole at tackle that must now be addressed in the offseason.
Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer was the first to break the news of Gross’ impending retirement. Gross will hold a press conference at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday.
With Gross gone, the Panthers have four tackles on the roster: Byron Bell, Travis Bond, Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams. Carolina also has three tackles on its reserve/future roster.
|Carolina Panthers: OT's on Roster as of Feb. 25|
|Player||2013 Snaps||Sacks Allowed||Career Starts|
|Byron Bell||1,026||9||41 (40 at tackle)|
|Garry Williams||15||0||21 (13 at tackle)|
|Kevin Hughes (reserve/future)||0||0||0|
|Oscar Johnson (reserve/future)||0||0||0|
|Andrew McDonald (reserve/future)||0||0||0|
Bell played 1,026 regular-season snaps at right tackle, Williams played just 15 snaps all season in one start at right guard, Bond played four snaps in one game at right tackle and Campbell spent the 2013 season on injured reserve with a left shoulder injury.
Nate Chandler, who was a starter at right guard for eight games at the end of the season, logged 40 snaps at both tackle positions before transitioning to the guard spot.
Bell is the only legitimate starting option at tackle but not a strong one. He was given a negative-2.8 overall grade by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and was the 43rd-ranked offensive tackle in the league last season. Bell gave up nine sacks in 2013, six quarterback hits and 31 hurries. His 46 total pressures were the most of any Panthers offensive lineman.
The need for not only depth but starting-quality talent at tackle is now more apparent than ever. While less than a month ago the Panthers had the luxury of targeting a wide receiver in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft in May, now that focus needs to be shifted to tackle, despite Gross' comments about the team's chances for prolonged success via Carolina's Twitter account.
"I didn't want to leave until I felt the team was in a good position for sustained success. The team is there now."
While a massive restructure of Carolina’s draft board this close to draft day isn’t a good thing, the Panthers had an idea that Gross may retire. This announcement isn’t a complete surprise. But the names will need to change at the top of general manager Dave Gettleman’s board.
Replenishing Via the Draft
Luckily for the Panthers, this year’s draft is strong with talent at offensive tackle. But if Carolina doesn’t pull the trigger in the first round, it may not find a ready-made starter by the time the team’s second-round pick rolls around.
Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews, from Auburn and Texas A&M respectively, will be long gone by the time Carolina picks at No. 28. So too should Taylor Lewan from Michigan.
Notre Dame’s Zack Martin could be available, but he might be best as a guard or swingman in the NFL. The Panthers can’t use their first-round pick and not get a perfect fit at tackle.
That means when the Panthers do select in the first round, players like Morgan Moses from Virginia, Cyrus Kouandjio from Alabama and Antonio Richardson from Tennessee are probably the best options at OT.
Kouandjio didn’t have a great showing at the NFL combine, and Moses might be better suited for the right tackle position. Gettleman has a lot of homework to do before May 8.
Filling the Void via Free Agency
The Panthers aren’t the richest team from a salary cap standpoint, but they did just restructure the contracts of center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and linebacker Thomas Davis to save the team $7.25 million in cap space, according to the Charlotte Observer.
There is still a long way to go for the Panthers to get out from some nasty contracts, and defensive end Greg Hardy still needs a truckload of money or the franchise tag. But there is a little money now available for Gettleman to start contemplating free-agent tackles.
One of the best tackles on the market might be Eugene Monroe, the five-year veteran that the Baltimore Ravens would like to find a way to keep. Monroe was the eighth-ranked tackle last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and gave up just four sacks, three quarterback hits and 17 hurries in 15 games.
Monroe could be a pricey option, however.
If the New Orleans Saints are unable to re-sign Zach Strief—and let’s face it, New Orleans is laser-focused on tight end Jimmy Graham, so Strief might hit free agency—he could fit in with the Panthers.
Strief was ranked seventh among tackles by PFF and gave up just three sacks last year with four quarterback hits and 26 hurries.
There are other names that could become available as well. New York Jets tackle Austin Howard might hit the market, as could Anthony Collins of the Cincinnati Bengals and Branden Albert of the Kansas City Chiefs. Money will be a factor with these potential free agents; the amount of cap space Gettleman is able to carve out will determine who the Panthers can target.
Losing Gross is going to hurt this Carolina team. Not only was he a leader on the line and one of the best tackles in the game, his presence in the locker room was huge.
Look for the Panthers to start adding free-agent talent at tackle as soon as they can, with the potential of adding more than one tackle who was a starter as recently as last season. Also, it would be hard to imagine Carolina’s draft strategy not leaning toward the tackle position early on.
The Panthers were hoping for one more season with Gross. His retirement leaves Carolina rather desperate at the tackle position and in need of a major overhaul.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.