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Brady Christensen, and the game of inches


CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have had to play rookie offensive lineman Brady Christensen all over the place this year, out of necessity.

Now, he might be finding a spot where he could stay for longer than a series at a time, or a week at a time. He might be finding a home.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday that Christensen would likely be at one guard spot this week against the Falcons to cover for all the recent injuries and illness, and that guard was likely where Christensen could settle in.

"I tell Brady all the time, hang in there, I promise you're going to be a really good player," Rhule said. "He's just playing so many different positions because he's not a starter. ... They practice all week at right guard, a guy goes down and suddenly they're playing the whole game at left tackle.

"That's difficult, but that's where we are right now, and they have to adapt to it."

Adapting was always part of the plan. When they drafted Christensen in the third round, they described him as a "second-round guard or a third-round tackle." He's started a couple of games at both right and left tackle this year, and after he spent his entire career at BYU at left tackle, that's where some figured he'd land.

But Christensen said he's been eager to play multiple spots since rookie minicamp, when he worked inside from the first day here.

"I think it's pretty obvious coming right out of college I'd be most comfortable at tackle; I've played there my whole career," Christensen said. "But there was a dialogue, 'let's play a little guard and see how it goes.'

"So I've been open to it all , really. That's been my mentality through it all, is to be ready, because you never know. There's a lot of things happening, so you've got to be ready for whatever."

There's been a lot of "whatever" for the Panthers this season. They've started eight different combinations of linemen in the first 12 games, and this week will make nine in 13.

Right guard John Miller's not expected to play because of an ankle injury, and left guard Michael Jordan's not terribly likely to return from his hamstring issue. And with Trent Scott on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Christensen's again pegged inside.

Considering the Panthers' issues protecting quarterbacks this year, many have wondered why they didn't just put Christensen at his college position and let him go. But Rhule went into detail Wednesday why that's not how the coaching staff views him.

"Brady's more of a guard body," Rhule said. "He's played tackle at times, but his future is probably more as a guard-center type. He's got athleticism and flexibility to go out there, but not quite the size and length of the premier left tackles.

"When we drafted him, we thought he'd be a good guard, a really good guard in time, and a good tackle."

Specifically, the issue of length has come up all season.

Christensen's arms measure 32-1/4 inches. The baseline many scouts consider for tackles is 33 inches, and longer is preferable when you're dealing with speed-rushers.

Right tackle Taylor Moton has 34-1/8-inch arms, same as left tackle Cameron Erving. Panthers Hall of Honor tackle Jordan Gross measured in at 33-1/4 when he was coming out of Utah.

That might seem like a nitpick, but when you're reaching to get your hands on the faster pass-rushers in the NFL, you can find yourself out of balance in a hurry. So when Rhule was asked about the seemingly subtle difference, he got a little animated in describing why it matters (starting at the 17:30 mark of the above video).

"When you're playing guard, the guy's so close to you, so it's really about hand dominance, hand control, and strength; it's not about taking his hands and keeping them off you," he explained. "If anything, I don't want a lot of separation at the guard position. I want to get my hands on guys. That's why you want big barrel-chested, strong, powerful men. We want length at every position, start there. But on the inside, it's so close-quarters, quickness, power, balance, all those things can compensate. And Brady doesn't have long arms, he has good arms.

"As I get out to the tackle positions, the premier left and right tackles have 34- or 35- or 36-inch arms, guys like Taylor Moton. There's so much more distance. If I wait until a guy is right on top of me, as he's running full speed with a 7-yard head start, and he meets me at the junction point, if I don't have long arms, I can't keep him off me. Now he can . . . run me over. If I try to set, and try to punch him, he swims me.

"Having guys like Taylor, the premier left tackles in the league with long arms, they're able to play with balance and keep guys off their body. As they get out and speed rushers get wide and come and hit you running 4.5s, you need to have arm length to keep them off."

Rhule punctuated one of his points with loud clap — harkening back to his days as an assistant line coach with the Giants — emphasizing why it makes such a difference.

Christensen said he realized playing inside might be in his future, and he prepared for last year's draft by doing guard drills as well. He's still among the most athletic linemen in his draft class, but having to do so many different things is difficult for any player, much less a rookie.

But Christensen has handled it all gracefully, knowing what he's most comfortable with from college might not be his eventual destination.

While all the moving he's done this season could easily be overwhelming, Christensen grinned and called it "awesome for me."

"It's been a great learning experience for me," he said. "When you're only in one area or one position, when you walk into that one position, that's great. But sometimes, you lack the knowledge of what everyone else is doing. So when I've been switched around, I really have to be on my A-game, knowing what's the left guard doing on this, what's the right tackle.

"So it's really been good for me just to learn what everyone's doing, so I can be on the same page with everyone. That's maybe the hardest thing up front, is all five guys doing their job every time. Because if one guy is not doing their job, the play's not going to work, so it's been amazing for me."

At the moment, the focus is on getting to and through this week's game against the Falcons — who bring game-wrecking defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, a challenge for even the best interior linemen.

But as the Panthers think about what lies beyond this season, Christensen's development will be important. They're clearly going to focus on improving the line this offseason. With Miller, Scott, and center Matt Paradis hitting free agency, there's going to be turnover in the middle — and a chance for Christensen to find a home.

Even if it's not at the position which he played so well for so long in college.

View photos of Panthers practice on Wednesday as the Panthers prepare to take on Atlanta in Week 14.

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