Last week, the Carolina Panthers announced the release of long-time starting left guard, Travelle Wharton. Combine that with grumblings that oft-injured tackle Jeff Otah is fully healthy, and one would expect the Panthers' offensive line to look substantially different in 2012.
In more news, the Panthers elected not to re-sign free agent G/T Geoff Schwartz and free agent turnstile Mackenzy Bernadeau. Wharton, Schwartz and Bernadeau played significant roles for the Panthers over the past three, four, or five seasons. While these players leave with mixed reviews, it's telling that all three will likely start on their new teams.
With these recent moves, the Panthers have effectively parted ways with their top three guards. But fortunately for the Panthers, the cornerstones of the offensive line remain (in tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah), along with the key-cog in the middle (in center Ryan Kalil). Putting how we feel about these moves aside, the Panthers will be tasked with finding two new starters at guard. The Panthers could fill these vacancies with players already on the roster, they could wait and find a cheap veteran in free agency, or they could look to the draft in hopes of finding an upgrade.
With all of this in mind, let's take a look at the Panthers' options at each OL spot in 2012, and then try to identify the starters and the key reserves at each position...after the jump...LT:
There has been some recent speculation about Jordan Gross and whether or not he will restructure his contract. The Panthers aren't going to give Gross a 'restructure or else' ultimatum like they did with Wharton, but Gross' cap number is upwards of $10 million, and it's safe to say that while he played well in 2011, he probably shouldn't be paid top-5 tackle money moving forward. Regardless of what happens there, we can write him in with ink at the LT spot.
There is one hidden problem that presents itself with the release of Travelle Wharton. He was the primary backup at LT. Now, the Panthers are left with T Garry Williams as the next man up. Williams saw some extensive action during the 2010 season, but it was at RT. Otah, while a beast at RT, probably lacks the quickness and agility to hold up in pass protection on the left side. Depth, combined with finding a future replacement for Gross are probably the Panthers biggest concerns at LT this offseason.
Three-deep depth chart:
1. Jordan Gross
2. Garry Williams
3. Free agent/Drafted rookie
An after-thought for so long, the LG spot is suddenly one of need. With Wharton gone, the Panthers can look to a group of inexperienced players, can look for a reasonably priced free agent, or they could elect to draft a potential starter in what would likely be the second or fourth round. More likely, they will take recently re-signed RG Geoff Hangartner and move him to LG. The LG is typically a little leaner, a little quicker, and is ideally the better pass protector. He must be athletic enough to pull and trap, and in the Panthers' offense, is more likely to lead block in the screen-game. Hangartner looks more than capable of making this switch. In fact, it would probably be the more appropriate position for him.
There is some depth here, with second-year men Zack Williams and Bryant Browning hoping to earn roster spots in camp. The Panthers may be on the lookout for another Geoff Hangartner type -- a guy who can play all three interior positions on the OL. But right now, they will probably choose to evaluate the young players currently on the roster.
Three-deep depth chart:
1. Geoff Hangartner
2. Zack Williams
3. Bryant Browning
This one is easy. Ryan Kalil has quickly become one of the premier centers in the NFL. The Panthers think so, anyway, as his contract dictates that he will be a fixture in Carolina for years to come.
Jeff Byers is the only other player on the roster who is listed as a center. If this position was hit by the injury bug (knock on wood), Zack Williams played center at Washington State and would likely be the third man up.
Three-deep depth chart:
1. Ryan Kalil
2. Jeff Byers
3. Zack Williams/Free agent
This spot is still a bit of a question mark. If the Panthers don't find the right value in free agency, and they don't draft a guard, then the likely candidate to win this spot is Byron Bell. While Jeff Otah was 'healthy' early last season, Bell was a guard. If we make the daring assumption that Otah will be healthy in 2012, Bell will likely be moved inside. He gained valuable experience starting in Otah's stead in 2011, but struggled against the better pass rushing defensive ends. A move to guard might be the best thing for Bell's career, and the best thing for the Panthers. Again, this is working under the assumption that Otah will play 16 games in 2012.
Beyond Bell, the Panthers don't really have a decent option. Roger Allen is a big guard who was signed late in the 2011 season. He started one game for St. Louis as a rookie in 2009, but has since bounced from one practice squad to the next. He is likely a camp body, but has the big-school pedigree some coaches like having gone to the Ohio State University. With Otah's name being written-in with pencil, it means Bell could move back to guard at any time, so the Panthers will likely find some depth at this position. Whether that be in free agency or the draft remains to be seen.
Three-deep depth chart:
1. Byron Bell
2. Free agent/Drafted player
3. Roger Allen
And here we are...Jeff Otah has shown the ability to turn NFL defensive lineman into rag-dolls. The problem, which is more than obvious, is that he just hasn't been on the field very much. But if what his agent says is true, and he is feeling great right now, the Panthers could have a pro bowl tandem at tackle.
Otah will be a bit of a question mark until he can prove that he is finally healthy. The Panthers must have a good plan in place in case he goes down. Last year, that plan looks to have been Garry Williams and Byron Bell. The larger Bell turned out to be the better fit at RT, despite being an un-drafted rookie free agent. The Panthers could go about this a couple different ways. If Otah doesn't hold up, they could move Bell back to RT, inserting a backup at RG, or they could just find another serviceable backup RT. Either way, they would be wise to find one solid backup at RG or RT. Since Otah's spot is the most delicate, if the Panthers decide to spend money on a backup offensive lineman, chances are it will be someone who can play some tackle.
Not mentioned in all of this is 2011 rookie Lee Ziemba. He could very well be key reserve the Panthers need on the right side of their line. Fortunately he was not thrust into action in 2011, so we don't know very much about him (besides from the fact that he must not have been as good as Byron Bell.) Ziemba, nonetheless, is someone to keep an eye on as we get into the preseason.
There it is folks. Your starting offensive line for the 2012 Carolina Panthers:
Jordan Gross, Geoff Hangartner, Ryan Kalil, Byron Bell, Jeff Otah
Discuss, delight, or bemoan...