Selecting Amini Silatolu in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft was a calculated risk. The concern whenever you ask a player to make a significant competition jump is that they can't manage it, and instead flicker out of the league quickly. Clearly out of his depth early in the year, it became clear that he was starting to get it in the Panthers late-season push. Silatolu's blocking improved on both running and passing downs, he held the point of attack better, and despite having more to contend with, he shone -- all while Carolina played a revolving door at center. Now there are charting statistics to show just how well he did late in the year.
Silatolu's pick foreshadowed Dave Gettleman's football sensibilities. Instead of a guy like Cordy Glenn who had successes and failures at Georgia, the Panthers looked to take a Division II player, but one who was dominant all the time. This was brought into light with the Edmund Kugbila pick. As Gettleman offered his post-draft presser, he might as well have been talking about the 2012 pick, not the player he selected moments ago.
Now it's about hoping Kugbila can make the leaps Silatolu has. In watching film you could see the moment the light came on. It was early in the game against Tampa Bay in week ten. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy tried to do exactly what he did against Amini in week one -- a simple stunt where McCoy dropped back for a moment, established his footing, and blew past a confused Silatolu for the sack. In week ten it was different. Keeping his head on a swivel, the left guard watched for a blitzing linebacker, before picking up McCoy and stonewalling him. The end result was a loss for Carolina, but a win for Amini -- who bested McCoy for much of the day.
As Schatz points out, the shift was astonishing. The rookie mistakes he made early almost evaporated, and while he's far from perfect (Silatolu still over-extends and loses leverage), the shift is welcome to see.
Cam Newton has been credited with righting the ship late in the season, and correctly so -- but the impact of having a more reliable offensive line was apparent. Over this same seven-game stretch, Newton's QB rating improved to 98.3 (up from 81.5), while throwing just two interceptions in this time period (down from ten).
It's about understanding where Newton's weaknesses lie as a quarterback. He's able to use his elusiveness to avoid edge rushers, but has huge problems with defensive tackle pressure up the middle. It's here where he gets flushed to the edges, and where ends will find him. The Panthers know this too, which is likely why we saw an emphasis on upgrading the offensive guard spot, rather than getting a developmental tackle in the 2013 draft.
The improvement in Silatolu didn't just help Newton, but improved the entire rushing offense.
They got more push, better handled run stoppers, and allowed the running backs to get to the second level. The improvement was anecdotal, but now statistical thanks to the work of football outsiders. If the Panthers can get this kind of improvement from Edmund Kugbila, and he can prove able to make a similar competition jump, then not only can Carolina boast the best defensive tackles they've ever had, but perhaps the best offensive guard play too.