Ryan Kalil is the center, of that fact there is no doubt. However, Kalil missed half the season last year, and then the Panthers started rolling through bodies like a greased up Zamboni with its brake lines cut. There was a silver lining to this saga however, in that the Panthers revealed a potential gem in the form of 3rd string center Tyler Larsen. Larsen gave the position some much needed stability after a couple of rocky weeks, and changed the entire outlook on the position. Gino Gradkowski is also there, but he did not see a whole lot of action before being hurt himself.
2016 Season Stats: Lead Hog Molly
Kalil is the best center in team history, and makes a good case for one of the best linemen overall. His season was shortened by injury in 2016, but there is little doubt that he will return in 2017 with a firm grip on the starting job. A multi-year All-Pro and Pro Bowler, larger than life personality, and all around good guy... Kalil is likely to wear Panther blue until the moment he retires. He is currently under contract through 2018, at which point he will be 33 years old, and his long term playing status will become more clear.
That said, it is time for the team to prepare for eventual life without Ryan. In that regard, the team got a little view into its future this past season while Kalil sat out due to injury. That leads us to our next man up...
2016 Season Stats: Transitional Hog Molly
Gradkowski did not see a lot of field time thanks to an injury of his own. He only started 3 games in 2016, and a good chunk of that was spelled by Tyler Larsen either due to injury or fatigue. Entering the season, Gradkowski was viewed as the solid backup to Ryan Kalil, and a potential long term answer if he could show some development, as he is currently 27 years old. He is under contract through 2018, like Kalil, but has a fairly even cap hit of about $1m per season. The Panthers could feasibly cut him and leave a small amount of dead money on the table ($300k), and they may have to do just that for roster-reasons, thanks to the emergence of...
2016 Season Stats: The Last Hog Molly Standing
Larsen was one of the most positive revelations of the 2016 season. After a cascade of center injuries befell the Panthers, Larsen was called up from the practice squad as the literal “next man up.” Expectations were low, and the Panthers season was already fairly doomed at this point, so no one expected much of anything from a guy who spent the first half of the season working as a landscaper. Instead of faltering, the 25 year old out of Utah State flourished. Larsen showed immediate proficiency as a pass blocker, though didn’t show much push in the run game. Still, it is hard to ask for more from a guy who wasn’t playing football the whole year.
Now that they know the kid can play, the Panthers should seek to develop Larsen a bit, and give him a real chance to earn the backup center role for the 2017 season. Larsen is under contract next year for $540k and no guaranteed money, so he will absolutely get his shot in training camp.