CHARLOTTE – When Greg Van Roten entered Bank of America Stadium on Monday, the offensive lineman said it felt like rejoining a completely different football team.
"It was weird," Van Roten said. "This is my first day back here since I got injured."
A lot has changed since Van Roten went down with a season-ending toe injury in Week 12 against the Saints. A week after Van Roten was placed on injured reserve, the Panthers parted ways with long-time head coach Ron Rivera. On top of that, the team Van Roten left was still in the playoff picture – now, those hopes are long gone.
"It's been tough to be watching it from a distance," Van Roten said. "But it's good to be back around the guys and see everybody, see how everyone's doing and just reconnect with the team."
Over the past three weeks, Van Roten underwent surgery on his left foot to repair an injury he compared most closely to turf toe. After the procedure, he spent some time recovering at Hilton Head Island with his parents – mostly because of the ease their one-story house provided for him and his new scooter.
Before this injury, Van Roten hadn't missed a single game or a single snap since earning the starting job at left guard prior to the 2018 season. As disappointing as missing out on the Panthers final five games may be, Van Roten knows he's been fortunate in the grand scheme of things.
"As far as season-ending injuries go, it's not career-threatening or anything like that. It just sucks," Van Roten said, before detailing his recovery timeline. "Non weight bearing for now, then hopefully a boot at some point, then by March, April, should be back to 100 percent."
That recovery will be critical for Van Roten, who, like many other Panthers, is set to become an unrestricted free agent when the season ends. After 27 straight starts as one of the veteran anchors along the Panthers offensive line, Van Roten looks to be in a good position, but then again, it never hurts to have five more games to prove your worth – especially entering a year full of transition in Charlotte.
"It affects it some way, but I think there's a need for interior lineman in this league, so my market value doesn't go to zero," Van Roten said. "It might take a little bit of a hit, I'm not sure. We'll see if I get to free agency or if something happens before then."
Heading into this season, the Panthers looked to be evaluating nearly every position on the field, with a number of newcomers signed to one-year deals, and a handful of current players in the final stages of their contracts. It was clear that if players wanted to be back in the black and blue next season, they'd have to state their case on the field in 2019.
Since then, only linebacker Shaq Thompson has agreed to an extension, leaving a number of players' statuses up in the air as the season draws to a close.
"Honestly, the whole season it didn't seem like they were talking to anybody, like a wait and see kind of thing," Van Roten said. "I don't think that much has really changed, other than Shaq got his deal, but that's pretty much been it.
"We'll see what happens the next couple weeks with the Panthers, really. No one really knows who's going to be here, who's not going to be here, so it's hard to make plans for the unknown like that."
For now, though, Van Roten is focused on doing what he can to help the Panthers right the ship during the final two games. While that may not be pancaking defensive linemen and opening up holes for CMC, sometimes it's just as simple as being around the guys again.
"I felt better, because I had been away from everybody, so it was good for me to get back and see everybody and they were excited to see me," Van Roten said. "Hopefully I brought a little light."
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