We often talk about how great our running backs are, how excited we are to see or new receivers play, and of course the change at quarterback this season and how much of a difference we believe it will make. But we often fail to remember what makes it possible to talk about each of those positions in such a positive manor and that's the five guys assigned to always protect the QB. Without a good, or rather great, front line the rest is hard to come by. We are lucky to have such a great line and, with Keydrick Vencent the only starter not returning this year, expectations are high. Can John Fox find his replacements and continue the Panthers dominating play?
Last year we knew who our starters were and the big concern was the backups. We lost several through FA last year and having the right personal behind the starters is a key part of the offense success. The last two years the line has been tested with injuries and their backups have preformed admirably. The head coach of any team often gets both the praise and criticism when a team performs well or poorly, even if it's deserved or not. I like to believe that a major part of our lines success was the "arrival" of offensive line coach Dave Magazu in 2007. Here's a short excerpt from the Panthers website:
Despite a number of lineup changes throughout the season, Dave Magazu oversaw an offensive line that helped produce one of the most potent offenses in team history in 2008. Also, tackle Jordan Gross earned his first-career Pro Bowl selection under Magazu's guidance.
Carolina entered the 2008 campaign with only one starter in the same position as the 2007 season finale and ended the year having used six different offensive line combination's. In spite of the constant rotation, Magazu steadied the unit and provided direction for an offensive line that paved the way for team records of 2,437 rushing yards, 4.84 rushing yards per attempt, 30 rushing touchdowns and 118 rushing first downs in addition to setting a team record for the fewest sacks allowed with 20.
After four years of working with the Panthers tight ends, Dave Magazu returned "home" in 2007 to coach the offensive line. His return was a success by every measure as the offensive line helped Carolina compile the third-most rushing yards in team history with 1,824 and the third-highest average yards per carry with 4.04.
After two year of offensive line success regardless of injuries I have high respect for Magazu and his ability to keep the best group of guys on the field. Having versatility from your front line players is key to building a strong offense. With roster limits you can't dedicate enough spots to backup everyone on the line and when injuries occur Magazu has been able to keep the right personal and adjust accordingly. With all of this said lets take a look at what his options are for the offensive guard position:
Travelle Wharton: 29, 6'4"; 312 lbs; 7th year - South Carolina
Wharton has spent his entire career in Carolina after being drafted in the 3rd found of the 2004 draft. While he spent many years at the LT position, the past two years he found him new home at left guard. With this experience he's capable of moving to several positions which is a must when injuries occur, although this year he may not have to move out to LT as Jaxon pointed out yesterday because of the other option for out Tackles. There's not doubt that Wharton will be starting. He's held down the LG position next to Gross for two years now and why would you mess with a good thing. While he's no spring chicken for an NFL player he's not old and should be able to handle the load.
Starting: 100%, Roster: 100%
Mackenzy Bernadeau: 24, 6'4"; 308 lbs; 3rd year - Bentley U.
Right now the best thing about Bernadeau is last year he was a decent backup. He filled in at LG when Wharton slid over to LT when Jordan Gross when down. Now he must answer the question can he become the full time starter. Currently he will be battling Robinson and possibly Geoff Schwartz (currently listed as a tackle) for the only open starting spot on the line at RG. Despite ones thoughts on Pro Football Focus ratings, it might not be a good thing that they rated both Vincent and Bernadeau are right next to each other and both ranking near the bottom of the list for guards. However, because he has the experience of game time, I would give him a slight (very slight) edge of capturing the roster spot.
Stating: 45%, Roster: 95%
Duke Robinson: 23, 6'5"; 330 lbs; 2nd year - Oklahoma
The Duke (Go Joe!) was injured before he got a chance to really compete for the starting job last year. While he was drafted in the 5th round shouldn't be knock on his abilities. He has the skills and size to be a successful NFL starter but will it translate to game day performance. I think the only reason he's not the favorite to win the position is because he didn't get any playing time last year. Any slip by Bernadeau and Duke is the next favorite.
Starting: 45%, Roster: 95%
Between the possible backups and the camp bodies below, there a good chance we could see some moment on who's they bring into training camp. They've had both their mini-camp and OTA's to see what these guys bring and these guys are on a short leash.
C.J. Davis: 23, 6'2"; 308 bls; 2nd year - Pittsburgh
Davis is in a similar boat as Robinson in that he missed the season do to injury, yet he doesn't have as much upside as he was an undrafted rookie last year.
Starting: 10%, Roster: 30%
Camp body (if that):
There's not much to say about this group. They have little to no chance of making the roster and even practice squad is a question. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of their names on the cut list when the time comes.
Kurtis Gregory: 23, 6'4"; 305 lbs; Rookie - Missouri
He's University of Missouri profile speaks highly of Gregory, but his NFL Combine report isn't so glowing. Basically Gregory best chance will be the practice squad. He has some skill but is slow and not agile enough for the NFL. He sounds like a high character person and while the Panthers appreciate that about their players, the also want them to preform.
Practice Squad: 70%
Ray Hisatake: 23, 6'3"; 305 lbs; Rookie - Hawaii
There's not much out there on Ray. Basically he moved from DT to Guard when he started attending Hawaii in his 3rd year after attending the College of San Mateo. He also reported he lost around 40 lbs to be ready for his chance in the NFL. Unfortunately I don't believe it will last to long, at least not with the Panthers.
Practice Squad: 5%
Noah Franklin: 23, 6'5"; 313 lbs; Rookie - Oklahoma State
There's not much information out there on Franklin either. He only started for Oklahoma state his senior year but they did lead the Big 12 is rushing. There little chance he will be on the roster come game day. His only hope is the practice squad, but really that a long shot.
Practice Squad: 5%