INDIANAPOLIS – A constant storyline surrounding the Panthers since general manager Dave Gettleman was hired three years ago and longtime left tackle Jordan Gross retired two years ago has been whether the hog-molly-loving Gettleman will pull the trigger on an offensive tackle at the top of the draft.
It hasn't happened yet, and Gettleman has found other ways to shore up the line in front of quarterback Cam Newton. Still, even with 2015 offseason acquisition Michael Oher stabilizing the left side and former practice squad player Mike Remmers doing much the same on the right side, Gettleman is never opposed to adding a hog molly – if the timing and value are right.
"It's like anything else. You always want to get better," Gettleman said. "I don't care what position it is – you're always going to look to get better."
Gettleman surprised many by not drafting any offensive tackles in 2014 after Gross' retirement, but he said there simply wasn't the talent to justify investing a pick when the Panthers were on the clock. The Panthers made do that season by moving Byron Bell over from right tackle to fill Gross' long-held spot and made the playoffs. This past offseason, even after they signed Oher, many observers called for Gettleman to draft a tackle early. He didn't, and Oher proved a Godsend in a special season for Carolina.
It would be just like Gettleman to draft an offensive lineman early just when the position seems strong – not because he's contrarian but because that's actually what he'll do if value presents itself.
But even if he does, it doesn't mean he'd be drafting an immediate replacement for Remmers for example.
"If you take a guy in the first round, you don't know for three years if you got a first-rounder or not," Gettleman said. "You just don't."
That's not necessarily something that draft prospects like Taylor Decker, an Ohio State tackle that many project to be a first-rounder, want to hear, but it is a potential reality.
"I've heard from some guys in college I played with who've gone on to the next level and had success that the style of play is a lot different. But it's still football," Decker said. "I think the biggest challenge is going to be, though I did play some really good players in college, I'm going to see the best players I'm ever going to see every single week. There's no room for error. You can't have an off game or a couple of bad plays. As an offensive lineman, a couple of bad plays means a bad game. You have to be consistent.
"Playing against high-level players, you have to execute at a high level, and it's challenging."
That's a lesson no doubt learned by the one offensive lineman Gettleman has selected in his first three drafts. The Panthers actually traded up last year to select Oklahoma lineman Daryl Williams in the fourth round. While Williams' future appears bright, his rookie season was spent on special teams, on the bench or as a sixth offensive lineman in the jumbo package. He showed flexibility and growth throughout the season, however, and in the Super Bowl he was inserted at left guard after starter Andrew Norwell – a crucial undrafted find for Gettleman – suffered a hamstring injury.
If the Panthers do use their first-round pick – 30th overall – on an offensive lineman – that's the kind of approach they likely would have in mind.
"I think a lot of times, guys start off at right tackle and learn from the veteran guy who is the left tackle," said Jack Conklin, a Michigan State prospect who played left tackle for the Spartans but could be a consideration for the right side in the NFL and could be a first-round target. "Maybe that's how teams see it going, or maybe that's how they see me fitting in their scheme. Maybe they see the right side as the more running blocking side, and I definitely see myself as a prototypical run blocking guy."
Behind Mississippi product Laremy Tunsil – the potential No. 1 overall pick – and Ronnie Stanley from Notre Dame, Conklin and Decker are among a handful of tackle prospects who could be considerations late in the first round.
Will Gettleman use a first-round pick on an offensive lineman for just the third time in franchise history? Nobody knows, but everyone should know that he will only do it based on value rather than need.