Having explored the ways in which the coaching staff need to improve in 2019 in the first part of this postmortem series, this piece looks to examine where the Panthers stand in regards to offensive personnel, how that is likely to change this offseason and the ways in which the Panthers may proceed. With 17 pending offensive free agents of all varieties, there is almost certainly going to be a lot of change on the offense – particularly at running back and on the offensive line which combines for 11 of the 17 free agents. So which of these players are likely to be back, is there anybody else who might be on the way out, and where can the Panthers look to fill some of the holes that will undoubtedly appear?
The Offensive Line
The Panthers’ offensive line has been an area for a concern, off and on, for a number of years and while there were promising early signs from the 2018 group, the beating that Taylor Heinicke took against the Falcons and the shot Kyle Allen received are pretty good evidence to the fact that this is once again going to be an area of focus this offseason. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t positives, as Trai Turner has once again been solid at right guard and Taylor Moton has been good enough at right tackle to assume that that is going to be his spot for the next two years at least – perhaps. In short, the right side of the offensive line is quite good, but what about the rest?
Ryan Kalil’s retirement has attracted a lot of focus from the Panthers in the past few weeks and rightly so, as while his past few seasons have been marred with injury, for most of his career he has been one of the very best centers in the NFL, and should be in consideration for the Hall of Fame down the line. What Kalil’s retirement means for the Panthers going forward, however, is that they are in need of a new starting center. There are options on the roster, as having signed Kalil’s backup Tyler Larsen to an extension this past offseason the Panthers least-adventurous option would be to turn the position over to him. However, while Larsen hasn’t played awfully when stepping in for various injured players over the past two seasons, it is fair to say that he has not shown anything to suggest he can be a high-quality NFL starter.
The other option the Panthers have on the roster is Greg Van Roten, who was solid for much of the season at left guard, though his play has tailed off somewhat in the final month of the season. Van Roten does have some experience of playing center at the NFL level – he learned from watching Kalil’s tape – and his ability to play there should allow the Panthers to try and get the best interior offensive linemen they can find to replace Kalil without necessarily having to look for a specialist center. Of course, the other option the Panthers have is to add somebody to play center either through free agency or the draft, though neither looks to offer an obvious candidate for a Week 1 starter. For once, the Panthers’ tendency to look for a solution already on the roster might actually be the correct path, though the Panthers shouldn’t rule out finding an outside solution.
If Van Roten does take over Kalil’s starting role, however, that will in turn create a vacancy at left guard; as with center, the Panthers would have the option of looking for a solution on the roster, with rookie Brendan Mahon being the most likely candidate to resume the role. Mahon did look good during the preseason, and it’s a shame that he has been put on IR as it would have been useful for him to get some game time what with Trai Turner missing the season finale and Larsen getting the start.
The Panthers would be somewhere between brave and foolish to go into the offseason with Mahon being the main option to start at left guard, but if the Panthers don’t bring in a clear front-runner either in the draft or via free agency, he could well emerge as the main candidate during training camp. Ideally, however, the Panthers will add a guard at some point during the offseason should they look to move Van Roten inside. Even if Mahon does emerge as a solid starter, the Panthers have a distinct lack of depth at guard which they can’t continue to ignore going forward.
The biggest question on the offensive line, however, is who will start at left tackle. With Matt Kalil having missed all of this season, both Chris Clark and Marshall Newhouse have gotten playing time at left tackle, and while neither have been complete disasters, neither have really shown themselves to be anything more than stopgaps. It is unclear where Kalil is with his injury, but on the assumption that he will be back healthy to start next season the Panthers will need to have a long hard think about how they approach things going forward.
Some things are clear; neither Clark nor Newhouse are starting-caliber left tackles in the NFL, Matt Kalil is overpaid and left tackles don’t grow on trees. For the Panthers, the key is to focus on what they can control, as while I think it would be hard to argue that Matt Kalil has been worth the money the Panthers gave him a couple of years ago, this is not something they can change, and making a decision based on what can’t be changed is foolish.
Instead, what they can control is whether they add a player who is better than Kalil.
While Kalil hasn’t been perfect, the public perception of his play is more extreme than the reality, when he has been healthy he has been a solid starting left tackle. Given that the free agent tackle class is highlighted by names such as Donovan Smith, Cedric Ogbuehi and Greg Robinson, there is little chance of the Panthers getting an upgrade from the free agent pool. The draft is always an option, but the expectation that you’ll be able to find a good starting left tackle in the draft is one that runs a high risk of being met with disappointment.
In short, Matt Kalil might not be amazing, but there is a very real chance that he is the best the Panther will be able to find this offseason – but there’s another path.
The final option the Panthers have would be to resign Daryl Williams and to move Moton over to left tackle, and while this has the potential to offer some improvement, it would likely come at the cost of giving a not-insignificant contract to a player who has missed large chunks of his first four seasons to injury and who, while not a poor player by any means, is not an obvious improvement over Kalil. What should be clear at this point is that the Panthers don’t have a clear path at left tackle, but the important thing will be to get the best player possible without having to add even more cap space to what is unlikely to be a strength of the roster – if the Panthers choose to bring back Williams, move Moton to left tackle and part with Kalil, they’ll need to ensure that it’s at the right price..
The other concern from an offensive line point of view is depth. As even if there are only six players under contract who the Panthers would likely want to have on the 53 man roster, and even if the five Week 1 starters are going to come from that six, the Panthers will need to add players to back them up, hopefully ones who have the potential to develop into starters down the line. The Panthers have had a tendency under Ron Rivera to wait until they lose a starting offensive lineman before they look to find a replacement; the departures of Norwell and Ryan Kalil being prime examples; but they need to change this if the offensive line isn’t going to be a persistent concern. This isn’t a draft class with many, if any, clear starters on the offensive line – more on this later – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something for the Panthers to target as the draft goes on with the hope of finding that can offer short-term depth with the prospect of becoming a starter down the line.
The Panthers would obviously love to go into the 2019 season with a dominant offensive line – but if it was that easy everybody would do it. If they can focus on solidifying their starting lineups while adding some depth – resigning one of Clark and Newhouse seems likely – and using the draft to build for the future – but crucially do so without expending yet more cap space, that should be seen as a a success.
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