Continuing our offseason position preview series next up is center. Few positions on the Panthers roster are as solid as center position in the offensive line. Let's start with the man in at the top of the depth chart:
Ryan Kalil (27) 6th Season 6'2" 295 Lbs - 100% Starter
Ryan Kalil has not only given the Panthers a reliable lineman, but perhaps a pro bowl quality center who is quickly becoming one of the best in the game. Kalil has started 63 games for the Panthers at center and trails only Frank Garcia (84) and Jeff Mitchell (78) in career starts in the middle. He's the youngest player to ever start at center for the Panthers and will undoubtedly become its most successful over his career.
He's also been durable. In the past three seasons, Kalil has started every game. For a team that has been plagued by injuries in recent years, Kalil has been a stalwart at center. [Knock on wood]. How good has Kalil been? Two of that past three years the Panthers have had their two best team-rushing seasons in franchise history. (The dismal 2010 season was more of an anomaly.) During the Panthers' amazing last few years rushing the ball, Kalil has been the only offensive lineman who has started at the same position every game.
Of course you can't give Kalil all the credit for the Panthers' stout running game, but as the leader on the line, and the one pointing out blocking schemes before he hikes the ball, it's more than just a mere correlation that Kalil's role in the middle has come at a time when the Panthers have developed an epic running game.
And then there are the intangibles. Kalil was given the task last year to deliver the football to a quarterback who had limited college experience, few off season team workouts, a new coach, a new offensive system, and doubters from coast to coast.
Cam Newton went on to have the best rookie season of any QB in NFL history. Coincidence? Again, Kalil's role can't be measured. But you better believe that his understanding and skills gave Newton the confidence he needed behind center to make history in 2011. Don't forget that Kalil and Newton had very few bad snaps during the season. Newton might have been great, but it took a great center like Kalil to get him the ball every down in a way that was easy to handle. Kalil (and the rest of the offensive line) were also able to stay remarkably disciplined knowing their quarterback may take off and run on any given down.
Marty Hurney knows the Panthers are as lucky as any team in the NFL to have the center position locked down. Kalil was franchise-tagged and signed a multi-year contract extension last year. Perhaps management was so impressed with Kalil that that they could take a risk bringing in Kalil's under study from his days at USC.
Jeff Byers (26) 3rd Season 6'4" 301 Lbs - Competing for a back-up center position
Jeff Byers joined the Panthers last season and made the active roster for a few games toward the end of the season. He'll struggle to make the roster in 2012 but could serve as insurance on the practice squad if, heaven-forbid, Kalil gets hurt. The Panthers typically look for back-ups that can play multiple positions on the offensive line so Byers is hurt that he doesn't translate to guard very.
The most likely scenario is that OG Geoff Hangartner will be the back-up center as well. ‘Piggy' as he is called has a much better chance of making the Panthers roster at RG essentially making the need for a back-up center beyond the preseason a moot point.
So I would give Byers about a 2% chance of making the roster. Given his play from last season I would say, if he qualifies, he should have 50/50 odds of making the practice squad.
One more note about the center position on special teams:
J.J. Jansen signed a contract in February to remain the Panthers' long snapper. Jansen was nearly perfect last season and even notched a few tackles on special teams. His versatility is something coaches love, and along with Kalil, Coach Rivera has one less thing to think about in getting the Panthers ready for the 2012 season.