Countdown to Training Camp: Offensive line

CountdownToTrainingCamp_OL

As the Panthers prepare for training camp, we're going to take a position-by-position look at what to expect when they get to Spartanburg. Today we're taking a look at the offensive line.

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers knew they needed to add offensive linemen, plural, this offseason. And they did that.

It remains to be seen how all those new people come together, and whether the line is actually better this year — or just different and younger.

For anything else that happened, the most important piece of business was keeping right tackle Taylor Moton, and they accomplished that. After using the franchise tag to keep him off the open market, they signed him to a new five-year deal last week, securing him through the 2025 season.

Beyond that one rather large check, however, the Panthers bought off the rack. They made many purchases, none of them particularly eye-popping.

That doesn't preclude the line from being better this year. But it's also not the kind of dramatic makeover some might have expected for a team that only had one returning starter (center Matt Paradis) under contract entering the offseason.

They're banking on the newcomers fitting in quickly, and stabilizing the front so quarterback Sam Darnold has a secure pocket.

It's far from a guarantee, and it's the kind of thing we won't know for a month or more after they've put on pads, hit someone, and settled into a consistent unit.

What's new: The Panthers knew they needed to make their offensive line younger this offseason, and they acted in quantity, if not necessarily quality.

On the first day of the legal tampering period, they agreed to deals with tackle Cameron Erving and guard Pat Elflein. The weekend of the draft, they picked a couple of players (Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown) and added a priority free agent (David Moore) with a chance to develop.

Cameron Erving

But for all those moves, they didn't sign an established left tackle (Erving has made a career as a swing tackle and versatile backup) or the kind of top-shelf draft pick which would have been easy to justify.

That was a result of other decisions the team made, in the constant quest for options and flexibility.

The decision to trade back twice in the second round (from 39 to 52 and then from 52 to 59) was made so they could stack assets, and recoup some of the picks surrendered in the Darnold trade. But between 39 and 59 (when they were supposed to pick and when they eventually took LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.), a clump of six offensive tackles came off the board. That's not to say all six of them were targets or even under consideration at that point in the draft, but it does speak to the conscious choice to invest more heavily elsewhere.

That made the subsequent trade up to the 70th spot to take Christensen a bit of a necessity, and it's unclear now where he'll fit in. They think the BYU left tackle's upside is higher at guard, and if he plays tackle it's likely going to be on the right because his arms aren't as long as some would prefer (32-1/4 inches and most prefer tackles to have at least 33-inch arms). Sleeve measurements aside, he's an elite athlete, and will likely be starting somewhere eventually.

Brown and Moore give them massive players inside, though it could be a year or two before they hit the field.

trent_scott

What's old: In addition to Moton returning, they also brought back incumbent right guard John Miller, giving them another known commodity. Tackle Trent Scott was also re-signed, though they held the door open for the rest of their free agents. Veteran tackle Russell Okung remains unsigned, while Chris Reed (Indianapolis), Michael Schofield (Baltimore), and Tyler Larsen (Washington) found new homes. That three of those four departures were on the wrong side of 30 is not coincidental.

Depending on how the competition for the left tackle job shakes out, it's possible the Panthers could have just one new starter from last year (since Scott is an option there, after starting four games last year when Okung was injured).

What we know: They definitely have more options.

Moton took just enough snaps on the left in OTAS and minicamp to tease at the possibility, though he's more experienced (and thus better) on the right.

Elflein's likely slated at left guard, though he could eventually play center (perhaps after this year, the final year on Paradis' contract). Christensen could play either guard spot or right tackle. Dennis Daley could end up at left tackle, or guard, so long as he's healthy. Greg Little will likely get some work on the right as they determine if they can find value in the former second-round pick. They tried to give everyone snaps at multiple positions throughout the spring, so that once they have a settled starting five, they have as much versatility as possible.

At some point in camp they'll have to zoom in, but that won't be for a few weeks, at least.

What we don't know: How many of those options are better than the ones they replaced.

It's possible that Erving's not the answer at left tackle, which means continuing the streak since Jordan Gross' retirement after the 2013 season of not having a long-term solution at the position. If the right 60 percent of the line continues to be Paradis, Miller, and Moton, it's at least an argument for stability. That doesn't mean it's not better than last year, but perhaps not dramatically so.

What to expect: Watching these guys once pads go on should be fascinating.

The Panthers invested in the defensive front this offseason, so seeing the guys in the middle working against Derrick Brown and DaQuan Jones and the tackles squaring up with Brian Burns and Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox should provide an early look at their progress as pass-protectors.

Otherwise, they're likely to roll through a number of combinations of players and positions before they find the five they're looking for — in hopes that those five are already on hand.

Stay tuned, because this might be the most intriguing position to watch in camp.

View the best photos of tackle Taylor Moton during his first four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

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