The Panthers could have some hidden options at center in the 2018 NFL draft

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

While Ryan Kalil is unavailable early this season with a nagging neck issue, it becomes very apparent that his future replacement at center isn’t on the roster. With retirement likely in Kalil’s near future, this is a position begging to be addressed during the offseason.

If you think about the ways to fill this need, two readily come to mind. First there is grabbing a quality free agent to immediately address the need or second is draft a collegiate center coming into the league and grooming them to be Ryan’s replacement. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed against each other.

As I see it, free agency just isn’t a good option for the Panthers. To pay the going prices for a quality veteran center is cost prohibitive, especially when you still have Kalil on the roster. I was the guy calling for the Panthers to sign Stefen Wisniewski a couple of years ago, before he went to the Eagles. That was before I saw his 3year/$8M+ contract. He’d have been an outstanding backup at center and both guard positions but, at his price, he would have cost us the resigning of one of our veterans. Apparently, Dave Gettleman saw the need as he ended up signing Geno Gradkowski to a bargain basement contract. Unfortunately, we got a bargain basement player.

That brings us to the 2018 NFL Draft to address the position. I believe the Panthers will be best served by using the draft to bring in their center of the future. Now, the problem! Looking at the center prospects that may be entering the draft this offseason, I came away unimpressed. None of the players projected into second or third round picks seemed to represent a value and, after seeing the results of less than stellar play at the position, I don’t want a pedestrian player to be brought in. This being the case, I decided to look for another avenue to address the position and think I may have found one.

I still think the draft is where we will find our future center…but not as a direct "plug and play" replacement. Hopefully, Ryan Kalil will remain with the Panthers for a year or two and, with in that scenario, there is an opportunity to seek out a value pick to be developed for the position.

I explored a long list of prospects and came away with a couple of high performers who I believe will be available at a pick that doesn’t directly relate to their talent. One is likely to be available since he has played out of position due to team necessity and his physique doesn’t match the mold preferred in the pros. The other is sitting out the entire 2017 collegiate season and so will likely drop a round or two from where you would expect him to be selected. Both possess the physique and talents to play center and can develop into a quality starter in a short period of time.

Here are my hidden options that you are unlikely to see in the most common sports sites. I think each brings a possibility of addressing the center position in the Panthers’ future:

Isaiah Wynn, OT/OG, Georgia: My favorite for the Panthers as his talent runs hand in hand with the Panthers’ needs. He is an exceptional run blocker and extremely solid in pass protection. His movement is very good and his power is undeniable.

Wynn is one of those players you want on your team. He plays where you need him and excels when he gets there. After having the majority of his starts at left guard for the last two seasons, he moved over to left tackle this season because last year’s starter has moved on and the two freshmen looked to for the position aren’t ready yet.

At 6’2"/302 lbs., he is undersized for the prototypical NFL guard…much less tackle, but if you look at the links I’ve provided, you’ll see that he overcomes any size limitations while starting at left tackle for the Bulldogs. Perfect physically for the center position, coming in and developing behind Kalil has the potential to have another feted player at the position for the Panthers.

Coming into the season, Wynn was generally slotted as a mid to late round selection at guard. Now his stellar play a left tackle has showcased his athleticism and his value is rising. With this in mind, I would expect his draft stock to be mid third thru fourth round by the time the NFL Draft rolls around. I’d be good with the Panthers’ late third round pick going for him. I believe he will develop into an outstanding center and, while Kalil is still on the roster, he provides depth at guard. Heck, he can even move to tackle in emergencies.

Larry Allen, III, OG, Harvard: Yes, that name does sound familiar. Maybe, because his father is NFL Hall of Famer Larry Allen, Jr. Coming into the 2017 college season, Allen was on several prospects list of the top 100 players. This fall, he decided to sit out the season for personal reasons and has been "out of sight, out of mind" ever since. At 6’3", 290 lbs., he is a undersized for a guard in the NFL but, with his strength and movement skills, he would be perfectly adapted for a move to center for the Panthers. Also, you can’t help but think his intelligence, ahem, Harvard, would be a great asset for the man calling out the offensive line blocking assignments.

I would be fine with the Panthers taking a flyer on Allen with their late fifth or sixth rounder.

Bonus Section: What happens if the draft shakes out and prospects of such value are available that the Panthers feel compelled to select a positional player other than a developmental center? Well, here’s a late round/FA prospect that could be a blessing for the Panthers!

Justin Lea, OG, Jacksonville State: After setting records for his grades on the field for the Gamecocks, Justin Lea, 6'4"/290 lbs, followed up in the classroom as well. Being both a first team FCS All-American and first team FCS Academic All-American says a lot about Justin. Playing for Jacksonville State (Jacksonville, Alabama not Florida) does leave some question as to how well he would transition to the NFL. He is technically proficient but will need to build up to NFL strength. I think Lea would eventually be a starting caliber player but would probably require a stay on a team’s practice squad to get acclimated to the league. Though there is a chance of Lea being drafted, I believe he would be a solid addition to the Panthers as an UDFA.

This is "outside of the box" when you consider how addressing a roster weaknesses is normally handled but I think there is merit in the madness. Thanks to all who have taken the time to read this post and be sure and vote in the poll I’ve attached.

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