The Carolina Panthers will be fielding a new look on their offensive line in 2014. Three notable names are gone from last year's squad with the retirements of Jordan Gross and Geoff Hangartner. Veteran Travelle Wharton has not made anything official, but he seems to be leaning towards retirement as well. Essentially, that leaves two veterans on the line with considerable experience and playing time remaining: Ryan Kalil at center and Byron Bell at offensive tackle.
While the big uglies in the trenches don't get the same kind of recognition as their point-producing teammates in the backfield and at wide receiver, they are still instrumental in an offense's overall success. Without a solid and effective offensive line, the offense as a whole will have trouble moving the ball and getting into the end zone.
Many fans and football experts were upset the Panthers did not choose to address the void at left tackle. Gross' departure seemingly suggested the team would draft his replacement so the rookie could grow with Cam Newton and be responsible for protecting his blindside.
The Carolina front office had other ideas prior and during the draft.
Bell and Nate Chandler look to compete for the starting jobs at offensive tackle and both look to be competing for the left-tackle position. For Bell, it is a natural fit as he played the position in college. Chandler proved to be efficient on the line and he stepped up when the team switched from defensive tackle to offensive lineman.
However, critics point to Bell's tendency for giving up sacks and use last year's game at Buffalo as a prime example. Bell allowed Bills' defensive end Mario Williams to sack Newton 4.5 times. Despite that letdown, Bell remains undeterred and confident.
Actually, both him and Chandler are confident in their ability to play offensive tackle.
Each has provided reasons why they can be the solution on the outside moving forward. Carolina was able to win seven games with both men on the offensive line and it appears that stat along with their veteran presence was enough to give them a shot at being starters in 2014.
Another tackle to watch is David Foucault, who was drafted fifth overall in the Canadian Football League draft. He impressed coaches enough in camp to be signed to the team and could be a dark-horse candidate to make the team when the roster is trimmed to 53 players.
It may not be the way many envisioned, but the Carolina coaching staff and front office had a plan for the offensive tackle position. Like it or not, the answer to filling the left-tackle position was on the roster the entire time.
Improving the Running Game
In a league that is becoming more and more pass heavy, this is a team that still relies on the run to move the ball. Having a solid offensive line in place will help in that department.
The Carolina Panthers ranked 11th in rushing in the league last year. Of course, much of that can be attributed to the scrambling ability of Newton. Take away his contributions to the running game, the Panthers only totaled 1,441 yards which would have dropped them to 26th in the league.
The 2014 season needs to be about returning the running game's effectiveness to the running backs. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are more than capable of carrying the load. Fullback Mike Tolbert is a wrecking machine in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but all three need some physicality and nastiness up front and on the inside to help get some daylight.
The addition of Trai Turner in the third round could help.
Turner was considered a steal in the third round and while Carolina's most pressing need was at offensive tackle, Turner could provide stability and effectiveness at offensive guard. The nastiness that was mentioned earlier is what he provides and head coach Ron Rivera has taken notice of it.
Ron Rivera likes Trai Turner's "nastiness and finish.'' #CARpick— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) May 10, 2014
Pairing Turner with veteran center Ryan Kalil could help make the offensive line more physical in the trenches. Kalil has appeared in four of the last five Pro Bowls and has asserted himself as the unit's leader. That leadership will be needed as the line will undergo a transition and feature a couple of new faces.
Avoid the Injury Bug
The reason Nate Chandler was switched over from defense to offense had a lot to do with the amount of injuries that were ravaging the offensive line. By the time Geoff Hangartner and Chandler were brought into the fold, the team lost five offensive linemen to injured reserve.
Staying healthy may seem cliche in the world of football, but for the men who will comprise the offensive line in 2014, it needs to be a necessity. Carolina somehow managed to overcome those losses and win 12 games, but that is a gamble the Panthers do not want to make again—at least anytime soon.
Two players to watch carefully from last season's injured group are Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila. Both attended small schools and both impressed the Carolina coaching staff. However, they will need to rebound and prove they are ready to go if they are to a have a future with the team. Silatolu spent the first week of OTAs working with the trainers after injuring his left knee in 2013. It's unknown how long it will be before he returns to the field.
It will be interesting to see how the overall line turns out. How will the new additions do in their respective roles? Can they be effective and help move the ball in the running game and offer Cam Newton adequate protection in the pocket?
As of now, there are a lot of questions that are without answers. Hopefully, the events of training camp and the preseason will give us a better idea of what to expect from the offensive line. To have reservations about the unit's success is understandable and warranted.
Player information provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com. Stats and rankings courtesy of ESPN.com.
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