CHARLOTTE – No one, not even Greg Van Roten himself, realistically expected the offensive lineman to make the Panthers' 53-man roster last season after the journeyman came to Carolina as a training camp body.
And no one really expected Van Roten to have much of a chance to grab the starting left guard job vacated by All-Pro Andrew Norwell, even after a series of injuries shook things up.
But days after Amini Silatolu went down to a knee injury, Van Roten started the preseason opener.
And now there's good reason to believe that the man who has exceeded expectations since coming to Carolina could start the regular season opener as well.
"It's a culmination of years of bouncing around different leagues and playing all across the board on the offensive line," Van Roten said. "They gave me a chance to step in, and I'm making the most of it.
"I'm going to fill in for as long as they need me, and if it turns into something longer term, I'm ready for that as well."
Van Roten had been mentioned all along as a left guard candidate by head coach Ron Rivera, but Silatolu – a second-round draft pick in 2012 when Van Roten went undrafted – got the first shot. Taylor Moton, a second-round pick in 2017, also was considered a candidate but landed at right tackle when Daryl Williams went down with a knee injury.
The Panthers' first practice without Silatolu featured undrafted rookie Brendan Mahon at left guard, but it turned out it was to get him extra reps that Van Roten didn't need as much.
"It's been a work in progress trying to find the answers to the guys that were injured for us and losing Andrew, but I like what they've done," Rivera said, who added that Van Roten has been playing well. "He's a technically sound guy. He does things the right way. He's got proper footwork, good hand placement and he's a very bright football player."
And a bright guy, period. The Penn graduate – from the prestigious Wharton School of Business at that – was bright enough to know that this time last year, the Panthers represented perhaps his last chance.
And like he said, he's making the most of it.
Using his economics degree with a concentration in marketing, Van Roten sold himself to teams after the 2012 draft by creating a website of his highlights and emailing scouting departments around the league. It worked, landing him a shot with the Packers that turned into a two-season stay, but in 2014 he found himself spending football season serving as an assistant coach for his high school team in Long Island.
"Canada was pretty much the only option at that point," Van Roten said. "It ended up being a great decision. I got a lot of film, got a lot of experience, really matured and developed as a player, and it gave me an opportunity to be where I am today."
Van Roten was a finalist for the Canadian Football League's most outstanding lineman in both 2015 and 2016 - once at center, once at guard – but even that only earned him a couple of months with the Jaguars last offseason and a pair of tryouts right before training camp. The Bills, and then the Panthers.
Foot in the door, he beat the odds and made Carolina's 53-man roster last season, spending the whole year on it and playing in 10 games – primarily on special teams.
He's so thankful for the opportunity but so ready for more.
"It's definitely exciting. It's what I've been working for ever since I graduated college back in 2012," Van Roten said. "No one wants to be a backup. Everyone wants to be a starter. Everyone wants to be a Pro Bowler.
"If your goal is to just be in the NFL, that's not good enough. That's not going to keep you around. But if your goal is to start, that's better. If your goal is to be the best at your position, that's a good goal to have. It's something I'll strive for, and we'll see how it goes."
View photos from the first practice back in Charlotte following training camp.