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Health and continuity will be keys for offensive line in 2024

Brady Christensen, Ikem Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE — There are certain patterns you can see with the remaining playoff teams and the places the Panthers are trying to get to.

The eight teams still playing had offensive lines that were largely together this season. The Panthers, not so much.

So, the Panthers having their two starting guards in the athletic training room and lifting Tuesday morning stood as evidence of where last season went wrong.

"We can be done," Brady Christensen said recently of a season to forget for the (many) guys at his position. "The year 2023 was a year to get hurt, and now we're done. We can leave that in the past."

Austin Corbett just shook his head while he considered what happened last season. After they started every game in 2022, he and Christensen combined for just five games played last year. They knew Corbett would need a few weeks to recover from the torn ACL he suffered in the 2022 finale. But the feeling was that with Christensen healed from his broken ankle in that same game at New Orleans, they'd be able to patch it for a few weeks until Corbett was back.

Then Christensen tore his biceps in the opener against Atlanta, and that turned out to be the snowflake that triggered the avalanche, even though they didn't realize it at the time (Christensen played every snap of that game and only realized he was out for the year after returning home).

"A lot of guys didn't know because it happened late in that last drive, and so then when he told us, on Monday, it was just like, dang," Corbett recalled. "But you're still so early in the year, everybody's like, 'All right, we'll be all right, Corbs is coming back soon.'

"And then it was just kind of like bodies just kind of kept dropping. And it's just like, we truly can't catch a break. So it was a bad year to be a guard for the Panthers."

At least it wasn't contagious, as left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, right tackle Taylor Moton, and center Bradley Bozeman played all 1,149 snaps.

"These other guys are warriors," Corbett said. "I mean, it's freaking hard to play 100 percent of the snaps in 17 games."

And that was especially hard on either side of Bozeman.

The Panthers used seven different players at left guard, and eight different players at right guard in 2023. They had to play a total of 14 different linemen on offense this year (not counting special teams snaps), and it doesn't take a long look around to realize how much of a problem that is. For a position that depends so heavily on communication, having so many guards next to him couldn't have helped Ekwonu, who could always rely on having Christensen next to him as a rookie. That stability can help pass protection as much as quick feet. A year ago, they saw it with their own two eyes, as they only used two combinations of starting lines all season. It's probably not a coincidence Ekwonu went 10 games without allowing a sack and gave up six all season in 2022, and was credited with 11 sacks allowed this year according to Pro Football Focus.

Offensive line 2022

The Buffalo Bills have a dynamic quarterback, but they also had all five starting offensive linemen play 95 percent of the snaps (or more). So it's not a coincidence that quarterback (Josh Allen) was sacked a league-low 24 times over the course of the season.

The league average was 44.1 sacks per team allowed, and the Panthers gave up 64 this season.

But a closer look at the eight teams still alive in the playoffs shows how important that continuity up front is.

Playoff teams and offensive line usage

Chart shows the total number of offensive linemen used during the regular season, and the number of linemen who played 90 percent and 80 percent of their total offensive snaps. (The Panthers used 14 players, and three of them played 100 percent of the snaps.)

Table inside Article
Team Total OL used 90% snaps played 80% snaps played
Baltimore 9 1 3
Buffalo 8 5 5
Kansas City 10 4 4
Houston 15 1 2
San Francisco 9 2 2
Detroit 10 2 4
Tampa Bay 7 4 4
Green Bay 9 2 4

The Texans used 15 different offensive linemen during the regular season, but five of those players were only on the field for fewer than 40 snaps (roughly half a game's worth).

The other seven playoff teams used 10 or fewer total offensive linemen for the year, and six of the eight teams had at least three starters play 80 percent of their total offensive snaps.

The Buccaneers only had to use seven different linemen for the entire season, and four of them played 90 percent or more of their snaps. Likewise, the Packers, Lions, Chiefs, and Bills all had at least four linemen play 80 percent of the snaps.

Apparently, that helps.

Aside from the obvious depth chart considerations (very few teams are good enough to have starting-quality eighth-stringers), there's a cohesion that's built when guys play next to each other for more than five minutes at a time. Having an experienced and accomplished line coach such as James Campen helps, but there's only so much anyone can do with that level of attrition.

James Campen

"Coach Campen does a great job of making sure the right combinations are being put together, making sure that we guys are good experience with each other," Bozeman said. "He did a great job there at training camp, OTAs of rolling all those guys in there getting reps, so it wasn't like the first time we've ever played together. That really helps."

It also helps (depending on the preferences of the next coach and general manager) that they have a cohesive group of players under contract for next season. While backups and replacements such as David Sharpe, Gabe Jackson, and Justin McCray are unrestricted free agents (the full list is here), the projected starting five plus young players Cade Mays, Nash Jensen, Ricky Lee, Chandler Zavala, J.D. DiRenzo, and Ilm Manning are under contract for 2024 or beyond, creating a good place to start for a team with plenty of other offensive questions to answer this offseason.

If the new coach wants to run a particular style, there's a chance he has a group he can work with walking in the door. That's not to say they won't want to add to the line inventory, but the cupboard is not bare, it just got picked over last year because of all the injuries.

And if you're looking for good news on that front, there's some of that, too.

230108 Panthers at Saints-200

Corbett's expected to be back from his MCL surgery and ready to roll by the start of the offseason program in April. And Christensen was cleared for full activity earlier this month.

While it's a hard proposition for the player in question and the team that had to account for it, getting the injuries out of the way earlier in the season at least allows for recovery time for 2024.

"It feels really good," Christensen said. "Last offseason, I was just focused on rehab, but this offseason, I can really focus on the fine details of the strengths and weaknesses of my game and really add.

"And so I'm excited for this offseason to really build on that part of my game."

After being stuck in a brace that largely immobilized his right arm for six weeks (he was playing ping pong with his left, and was the best of the offensive linemen with his off hand), Christensen said he was approaching full strength now.

Brady Christensen, Ikem Ekwonu

But aside from the physical recovery, he was stuck watching guard after guard go down and knowing there was nothing he could do to help stop the slide.

"It was a really hard year to watch," Christensen said. "As a man, you just want to be down there and helping your boys out and being down there. Win, lose, or draw, you want to be down there helping the guys out. And that's what I felt every game. So it's hard to go through this whole season and just watch it.

"I was grinding, I was trying to get back towards the end of the year, and it didn't really matter to me if we were whatever record I wanted to get back. And so that was always my thought for us; my goal was to get back, even though it ended up not happening. But it was hard to watch and, you know, but I'm glad the boys stuck through it, and I was very proud of them just for keeping going and never giving up.

"Sometimes when it rains, it pours, you know, that's kind of how it was. So the goal is always to stay healthy and have the same 11 line up each week. But at the same time, you got to be ready because this is the National Football League; injuries are going to happen."

They certainly happened to the Panthers last season, and that lack of stability up front was part of a larger cascade of issues on offense. Get those guys healthy and on the field together, and there's at least a chance to fix the rest of it too.

Offensive line

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