The Carolina Panthers have received plenty of negative attention for their handling of the receiver position this offseason, but that has only served as a distraction from the true gaping hole in their offensive lineup, a blindside protector for quarterback Cam Newton.
When career-long Panther Jordan Gross retired in February, left tackle became the most glaring position of need.
For 11 years, Gross was the one constant that survived several offensive line overhauls, and he did so in impressive fashion as a three-time Pro Bowler. Without him, the offensive line was left with just one guaranteed starter, center Ryan Kalil.
However, the front office didn't appear so concerned about their seeming lack of an heir apparent on the roster when they decided to skip on what the draft and free agency had to offer at the position.
This decision was a vote of confidence for both Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, who are in the midst of a battle for the role as Newton's primary bodyguard. But the longer this competition goes on, the more I see it leaning in Chandler's favor.
Earlier in the offseason, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Bell would step into the starting role. ESPN.com's David Newton reinforced the sentiment that general manager Dave Gettleman was sold on his ability to succeed on the side of the line he played at in college.
Beyond the reports, it simply made sense that a guy who was a day-one starter last season would be the safe choice over a player who had flip-flopped from position to position over his football career dating back to his early years at UCLA.
However, few really knew of the momentum that Chandler was carrying into the offseason and how that would play into the battle. According to Newton, Gettleman had this to say about the converted defensive lineman: "The kid wants it. He's completely bought in [to playing offensive line] and he's talented enough to get it done."
Newton also shared some high-praising comments from Jackie Slater, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who Chandler trained with over the summer: "I'm telling you right now, it's hard for me to imagine there is anybody out there more physically gifted to play—you name the position [on the line]—than this young man."
Slater also added, "There's no doubt in my mind he's a top left tackle." It may seem that he's jumping the gun with these comments, as Chandler is still learning the position, but it's hard to believe that anyone knows more about the position than Slater, who was a seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the St. Louis Rams.
Also consider that Chandler is in rare territory in terms of making such a rapid position change from the opposite side of the ball, and he was generally effective in his first season. He wasn't on Jordan Gross' level of play by any means, but it would be fair to say that he was equally, if not more, productive than Bell, who has three years of experience at tackle in the NFL.
If Chandler can hold down the left bookend, it will allow veteran Garry Williams to regain a starting position at right tackle. Williams has moved around to nearly every position on the Panthers offensive line during his four years with the team, mainly as a replacement for injured starters.
The offensive line would then look fairly formidable in the present and have tons of potential to form chemistry together moving into the future with each starter being under the age of 30.
Bell would be relegated to a backup role in this scenario, but he would provide important depth. If any interior linemen were to miss time due to injury, Bell would immediately be able to step back into the right tackle spot and allow Williams to bump down and replace the injured player.
If Chandler can live up to this praise, the Panthers offensive line may shock the experts again and put the team in contention for another NFC South title in 2014.