For Ikem Ekwonu, his rookie year was just a start

Ikem Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE — Perhaps you've heard, the Panthers still have a number of items of business to handle this offseason, including a couple of very important ones.

But for the first time in a long time, about 10 years actually, they're not going into an offseason looking for a long-term answer at left tackle.

With 2022 in the books, Ikem Ekwonu won't be identified as a "rookie left tackle" anymore, and the progress he made in his first season is a big part of what they'll be building on, no matter who the next head coach or quarterback happens to be.

"His growth from Week 1 to Week 17 was outstanding," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said. "We're really excited about him. He's everything we thought he was."

That should be good news, because they thought he was pretty good to begin with. Fitterer admitted last offseason that if they were picking first overall and not sixth last year, Ekwonu would have been the pick. So not having to move up to take that kind of potential franchise cornerstone was a bonus.

The Panthers hadn't used a first-rounder on a tackle at all since they chose Jeff Otah 19th overall in 2008, and as a result, they were never settled for the decade before Ekwonu arrived. Since Hall of Honor tackle Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season, they used 16 different starting left tackles, none for more than 19 of the 129 regular-season games before Ekwonu arrived.

Consider this list: Michael Oher (19 starts), Matt Kalil (16), Byron Bell (15), Chris Clark (13), Mike Remmers (13), Dennis Daley (12), Cameron Erving (9), Greg Little (7), Russell Okung (7), Brady Christensen (4), Trent Scott (4), Daryl Williams (3), Taylor Moton (3), Marshall Newhouse (2), Michael Schofield (1), and even David Foucault (1) started games at left tackle after Gross retired.

Ekwonu is, to put it mildly, different from most of the names on that list — which includes some good players but a lot of placeholders instead of foundation pieces.

So the stability was nice, but Ekwonu did more than just show up for 17 games. He continued to get better.

"I feel like I've definitely grown a lot," Ekwonu said. "I'm a better player than I was, definitely a better player."

"It's mostly my processing of the game. The game slowed down, my technique got better as the year went on, the chemistry with Brady got better as the year went on. A lot of things, all positives."

But that growing came with some pains.

He took some lumps in the opener, but playing against an All-Pro like Browns defensive end Myles Garrett will cause that. Ekwonu allowed two sacks in his first game, and another one in his second against the Giants. But then he went 10 games without allowing another sack. He finished the year with a bit of a slump (relatively speaking), with three sacks allowed in the final five games, but that's only a part of the equation.

They knew they'd need to polish him in pass protection. They also knew he was already good as a run blocker. And with the emphasis on that part of the game after the coaching change (they averaged 146.8 rushing yards per game under interim coach Steve Wilks over the final 12 games, which would have ranked sixth in the league for the year), that was a key.

Brady Christensen, Ikem Ekwonu

Playing next to Christensen, who slid inside to left guard this year and also started all 17 games, was also a significant part of that.

"I'd say so," Ekwonu said. "Our tendencies, how we do certain things like combo blocks. That's a unique chemistry that you build.

"The whole line really gelled; that's why you saw that uptick in the run game the second half of the year. We progressed, and that was a big part of it."

The continuing to work is the key element, and that's another big part of the reason they trust the foundation Ekwonu has put down so far. From a rough start to the season, the way he put in effort to improve impressed them.

"Week 1, he probably had the hardest out-the-gate assignments in the NFL facing Myles Garrett," Fitterer said. "Anyone's going to struggle. Any rookie, no matter who they're facing, that's a tough call for them. However, his growth throughout the season. His run game was dynamic. But what he did in pass pro. His technique. How that improved. That shows a lot. How much he worked on it. Just how good James Campen and (assistant offensive line coach Robert) Kugler are working with him. You can see those guys on the side working with him. Brian Burns is working with him."

And that work isn't going to stop. Ekwonu said he had a number of specific plans this offseason, including continuing to work with offensive line guru Duke Manyweather, who brings a number of top linemen to work together at his gym in Texas, to learn from him and each other.

"I don't want to take too long without doing positional work," Ekwonu said. "I know me; I want to make sure I keep that muscle memory. It varies from guy to guy, but my plan is to do some things this offseason. I'll work with Duke, work on my own, and some other guys I work with. But it's definitely something I want to continue to work on."

If he improves, another thing will happen for the Charlotte native — the expectations will increase. After going so long without an answer at the position like they had with Gross for a decade, going into a new year with a name written in ink on the 2023 depth chart will bring a sense of security, and potential, as long as he builds on what he did in his first season.

It's been some time since the Panthers' offensive line was a thing they could count on. Now, it's almost a known at a time when there are so many unknowns. They still have a few outstanding issues (right guard Austin Corbett tore his ACL in the finale, Christensen is facing a few months of rehab after breaking his ankle in New Orleans, and center Bradley Bozeman will be an unrestricted free agent). But with Ekwonu in place, they're starting in a better place than they have in a long time.

"There's definitely a standard we set for ourselves this year," Ekwonu said of the line in general and himself in particular. "That's what we want to keep going.

"And we're going to work this offseason to make sure we keep it in place."

View photos of Ekwonu from his 2022 season debut with the Panthers as he became the first Panthers rookie to play 100 percent of the offensive snaps.

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