The Carolina Panthers are going to be forced into a couple of reshuffles this week ahead of the game against the Cowboys, with injuries to Christian McCaffrey, Jaycee Horn and Juston Burris necessitating major changes to both the running game and the secondary. However, as well as those they are going to be forced into, the long week following the Thursday night game is also going to be the Panthers’ best chance for a while at making adjustments to their starting line-ups.
This might seem like an add move for a team that has started the season 3-0, after all why fix what isn’t broken, but, with nine consecutive Sunday games until their bye week, the Panthers are going to find it hard to make major changes for a while.
But what does this have to do with the offensive line?
Not for the first time, the questions around the Panthers entering the season had a heavy emphasis on the offensive line. While there was understandable uncertainty about how Sam Darnold would look outside of New York and whether Phil Snow and Joe Brady could make the most of the talent available to them. So far, the answers to those questions have mostly been positive. For the offensive line, however, the results have been far more mixed.
Through three weeks, Sam Darnold has been sacked six times and hit sixteen times, while the running game has been held to a combined 3.4 yards-per-carry through three games while surrendering fourteen negative plays on 93 carries, meaning that roughly every sixth carry the Panthers have had this season has ended up losing yardage.
While things did pick up in the run game against a Houston team that has struggled in that regard so far in the season, it seems fairly clear already that, injuries aside, the offensive line is going to be the limiting factor for the Panthers this season. But what can they actually change about that?
The Panthers issue is not that they have any on terrible individual, but rather a lack of proven good players. Taylor Moton might not have had the hottest start to his 2021 season, but he is still playing at a high level on the right side, while Matt Paradis has been pretty good at center. Besides that, however, there really isn’t a lot to write home about.
Pat Elflein was probably the closest thing the Panthers had to an outright liability prior to his injury, but neither he, Cam Erving, John Miller or Dennis Daley has been anybody’s idea of good. The issue this creates is that, with so many replacement level starters, the Panthers are always going to have at least one player in an unfavorable one-on-one matchup on every rep. This doesn’t mean that every play will be a disaster, but the fact that the Panthers are allowing either a TFL or a QB Hit on about 15% of snaps is indicative of a serious issue.
If fans or coaches are looking for a magic bullet that addresses this issue, then it doesn’t exist. There aren’t three high-quality starters waiting in the wings to come in and rescue things. The question is what the Panthers’ least bad option is.
For a start, there is the ongoing question of whether Cam Erving or Taylor Moton should start at left tackle. While Taylor Moton hasn’t been perfect so far this season, he has continued to play at an overall high level on the right side, while Erving has struggled on the left side. There is no guarantee that moving Moton to the left side would be a perfect solution but having tried it quite extensively through camp while insisting that Cam Erving was their left tackle, this is something the Panthers should be at least considering.
If Moton did move over to the left side, there are then a number of options about what they could do on the left side of the line, with the most likely being to move rookie Brady Christen into the starting line-up at right tackle. Christensen showed a number of positive things during the preseason and worked extensively at right tackle during training camp and, while there are always going to be ups and down with staring a rookie at any position, he certainly has more upside as a starter than Erving at this point.
Of the moves the Panthers could make at this point, moving Moton to the left side and starting Christensen would be the one with the most significant long-term implications as both are under contract through at least 2025. No move the Panthers could make is going to be without risk, but if the Moton and Christensen pairing proved successful then this would likely answer the tackle position for the foreseeable future.
On the interior, it seems inevitable that one of Dennis Daley and John Miller will continue to start, and though neither look to be high-quality starting options in the long run, if the Panthers can get to the point where one of the two is their biggest concern on the offensive line, then that is likely a significantly better situation than what they have had through the first three games this season.
While he has been inactive for each of the Panthers’ first three games due to his lack of positional flexibility, Deonte Brown is the other rookie offensive lineman who could make some claim to being a starting alternative based off of his preseason play. Having reduced his weight significantly since the draft, Brown still has the power to be an impact player on the ground but has shored up his pass protection by being a little lighter on his feet. He has always been a highly technically proficient player and, though a sixth-round pick, certainly has the potential to play at a high level in the NFL.
For the Panthers this ultimately comes back to risk and reward, and a major part of that is just how good do the Panthers think they can be this year. Based on what we have seen to this point, the Panthers’ ceiling this season is likely to be set by the offensive line and, while teams don’t need great offensive lines to be relevant in the postseason, there are very few teams that have had meaningful postseason success with bad offensive lines. If the Panthers are looking at the ceiling for this year, then something needs to change.
The floor is a much less exciting but still relevant proposition for, as good as Sam Darnold has been through three weeks, this is still something of a reclamation project and, as such, it is important for the Panthers to continue to put him in a position to be successful. The current offensive line might not be great, but if they end up making things worse by tinkering then that could not only hurt their chances of being competitive now, but also create knock-on issues with Darnold’s development.
Under Ron Rivera, Panthers fans were used to offensive lines of journeyman veteran while rookies watched on, with the 2014 Panthers starting Amini Silatolu and Fernando Velasco over future All-Pro Andrew Norwell and future Pro Bowler Trai Turner. Matt Rhule showed last year that he is willing to play young players and, while there is understandable a higher level of caution when it comes to protecting Sam Darnold, the Panthers can’t afford to see their season slip away over the next nine games due to poor offensive line play.
The best teams don’t fix what isn’t broken, but they also don’t wait for the wheels to start coming off before they look to repair what is. The Panthers are unlikely to throw their existing offensive line out the window for the Cowboys game, but they won’t get a better opportunity to introduce one of Christensen or Brown into the starting line-up until their December 12th game against the Falcons.
3-0 is good, but a change up front might be needed to make the most of this hot start.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)