In 2014, the Panthers opened the season with Amini Silatolu poised to make good on his second-round draft selection after tearing his ACL only a few games into his 2013 campaign – fully healthy, Silatolu began the season with high hopes after having started 15 games as a rookie – but only seven games into the 2014 season, he would be supplanted by an undrafted free agent who was listed on the team’s initial depth chart as the third option at left guard, behind both Silatolu and Derek Dennis, who would eventually land on the practice squad. You might have heard of him – he just signed a contract with the Jags that at the time made him the highest paid guard in the NFL after being named a first team All-Pro lineman – Andrew Norwell started the 2014 Week 7 matchup with the Green Bay Packers and never relinquished the job back to Silatolu.
Even when a 2015 Norwell injury gave Silatolu his spot back momentarily, Silatolu would tear his ACL for the second time in his career and eventually sit out the entire 2016 season before returning last offseason to the Panthers; when Norwell left for the Jaguars, Silatolu entered camp as the projected starter at left guard – but a torn meniscus suffered during training camp has Ron Rivera saying the team is poised to start undrafted free agent Brendan Mahon this Thursday night after the team announced Tuesday evening that Amini Silatolu would undergo surgery to repair a torn left meniscus.
Déjà vu all over again.
With Silatolu expected to miss at least the rest of the preseason – Panthers head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion said his return will be evaluated “on a week-to-week basis” – the Panthers have now lost two of the five offensive linemen who were expected to get the nod Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys; right tackle Daryl Williams dislocated his patella and tore his MCL the first week of training camp. Taylor Moton, who was once thought of as an option at left guard, has taken Williams’ place at right tackle, but that position is expected to be filled by either Mahon, fellow undrafted free agent Taylor Hearn or veterans Tyler Larsen, Jeremiah Sirles or Greg Van Roten.
However, when Silatolu left practice early Tuesday morning, it was Mahon who took all of the reps with the first-team offense – it will be consistency that Ron Rivera and the rest of the coaching staff will be looking for to find their new starter at left guard.
“That’s the biggest thing,” said Rivera after practice. “We can’t see big mistakes, we can’t see a lot of little mistakes; we’ve got to see limited mistakes – we’ve got to see good work. The nice things for those guys is who they’re lining up next to – Brendan’s got an opportunity to line up next to Matt [Kalil] and, quite honestly, Tyler Larsen is going to be in there and he’ll do a good job of communicating with those young guys as well. [He is] fortunate to have veteran guys next to him.”
While many fans will make the jump from Norwell to Mahon, the likelihood of finding two All-Pro undrafted free agents at the same position is unlikely – although the similarities are certainly there, even if they’re only skin deep. Rivera and Marty Hurney have had their eyes on Mahon for awhile, liking what they saw on his tape and feeling as if his injury in college wasn’t serious enough for the team to pass on the lineman, who played multiple positions at Penn State along the offensive line.
“Marty did a lot of research on him and Marty didn’t think [Mahon’s injury] was that big of a deal,” said Rivera. “So we kept an eye on him and at the end, when he didn’t get drafted and we’re getting ready for rookie free agency, he was our first call once it ended – we got on him early and stayed on him.”
That research and persistence may have paid off, as Mahon has impressed thus far in camp even though just like Norwell, he began the season listed third on the initial depth chart at left guard. But that all may change on Thursday night.
We had the opportunity to chat with Mahon after today’s practice session in which he took the majority of the first-team reps.
How does training camp or practice compare from training in college to a professional level?
Well, it’s definitely a lot hotter down here, Pennsylvania is nowhere near this hot. Training camp in the pros, you know, you just have to come out everyday; everyone is the same caliber as you and [you have to] really focus on your technique and your craft. That’s really the big difference from college – you’re kind of going against some of the scouts and stuff like that [in college]. Just the next level talent you’re going against everyday, you really have to bring it in everything that you do technique, every play and work on your craft.
You got plenty of chances to do that today. What was it like being in there with the first-teamers today?
You know, I’m really happy for the opportunity. I’m just going to keep working really hard and listen to everything Coach Matsko has to say and what everyone else around me has to say as well – because that room has a ton of experience. Guys like Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil, Trai [Turner] – all those guys, just listen to what they have to say and going off of that.
There was a lot of game prep today, but how did you feel that you held up, in with the first group for that long?
It felt really good having a guy like Matt Kalil and Tyler Larson next to me to kind of calm me down and tell me that ‘it’s football and you have been playing it for so long, you did your thing at Penn State and just continue doing it here.”
The feeling that you might be the next man up if Amini is down for any extended period, how do you handle that challenge and are you excited about it?
I’ll attack it like I attack everything else, just like I attack practice and games in the past, working on my technique, my footwork and everything – just play football and play the style of football that I love and that’s Panthers style football – hard-nosed football.
Any thoughts on why you might have slipped and gone undrafted, was that surprising?
I really can’t worry about that. I’m happy where I am and happy for the opportunity and now it’s just proving everyone else wrong and really thanking this team for the opportunity.
Some people say that it’s almost nicer to be UDFA because you get your choice with teams. Was that the case with you?
I had a good amount of offers but I kind of had a feeling that I was going to end up here throughout the draft just from having conversations with the staff here; when I got that call, I was extremely happy and I’m happy to be down here.
Had you and your agent done research and known that the Panthers had lost Andrew Norwell and did you say, “This could be a real opportunity to kind of follow in his footsteps?”
Yeah, you know, that was a big thing my agent said and the style of play they play here, he thought it was the best fit and I thought it was the best fit as well. Norwell, he’s a great player and he deserves everything he’s had, and my goal is to be just as good and my goal is to strive and play like him and really the sky is the limit
The Panthers have moved you all around the line during camp thus far, is there one spot you feel the most comfortable at?
At Penn State I started in every position but center, so I’ve been bouncing around for the past five years. Whatever puts this team in the best situation. [At Penn State], it was like new year, a new position, depending on our depth. This past season, I started at right guard the entire season [and] the season before that, it was left tackle and right tackle – season before that, it was left guard and right tackle.
When you talk to the linemen like the Kalils and Trai, what are you trying to pick their brain about? Is it technique?
Really everything, to be honest – Ryan Kalil has been a great tool to be able to come off after a series of plays and really have him break down your past four plays – really tell you what you have to focus on; then you can go out the next series of plays and really focus on that and having that instant help and feedback on the sideline is amazing.
Are there nerves thinking about Thursday night?
I’m so excited for Thursday, playing my first preseason game in the NFL and having this opportunity – I’m just really ready to go and play my style of football and let loose a bit. It goes back to that natural mentality that we had through five years at Penn State and throughout high school – it really just turns back into a game that I love and really enjoy playing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the “Big Baby” nickname [Brendan’s Twitter handle is @BigBabyMahon]
Back in high school, we went to the state championship and it was “No Shave November” – I was the only sophomore on the offensive line and everyone was yelling at me “Why’d you shave, why’d you shave?” I was like “I didn’t shave!” and then my head coach started calling me “Big Baby” and then “Big Baby” just stuck from high school and college – I guess you guys are trying to get it to stick now.
Sorry, Brendan. Play anything like the last UDFA to start at left guard and the fans will call you anything you want.