CHARLOTTE – The Panthers get roughly five weeks off between minicamp and their annual trip to Spartanburg for training camp, and a chunk of the roster spends parts of that time meeting up for throwing sessions or spending extra time in the playbook.
Because the NFL calendar takes a break around the same time from mid-June through late July, there's a bounty of opportunities for players across the league to connect and share knowledge.
Think of the league's quarterback coaching summit or Von Miller's annual convergence of pass rushers – multiply it by a couple of extra pounds and put it in Texas, and you have the OL Masterminds conference hosted in Frisco.
Starting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and reserve lineman Cade Mays both freshened up ahead of their second-year campaigns at the event last weekend. And it'd be safe to assume they had a pen and paper out for the occasion.
"It's all about just knowledge," Ekwonu said. "Honestly, me coming in as a rookie last year, I had a notebook both days just ready to go – soaking up as much knowledge as I can."
Coordinated by Duke Manyweather (the offensive line "guru" who hosted rookies featured in FOX Sports' "Big Boys Club O-Line Draft Academy" last spring) and Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, OL Masterminds is a three-day event with expert panels, breakout sessions tailored to positions, video games, and brand opportunities – and Carolina's young linemen are taking advantage.
"I followed Duke a little bit throughout high school; he was doing the O-Line Masterminds thing throughout high school. And then throughout college, he started the O-Line Masterminds summit. So I definitely wanted to go as soon as I could," Ekwonu said. "I was able to go last year, finally. I've heard about him a lot. And just in the space talking offensive linemen, there are only so many guys that talk about it the way he does. (He's) definitely a guy I gravitated toward."
This year's event brought more than 275 offensive linemen together and featured words from Hall of Famers Bruce Matthews, Steve Hutchinson, and Will Shields, along with Andrew Whitworth, Robbie Tobeck, Richie Incognito, and Damien Woody.
"It's all about just sharing notes, sharing knowledge about each other, sharing stuff about the game, mindset," Ekwonu said. "Telling stories and just enjoying the presence of being with guys that think like you."
Using the offseason to gain extra insight is especially beneficial for young players such as Ekwonu, a second-year starter who will be protecting rookie Bryce Young this year, and Mays, in the running to start at right guard while Austin Corbett recovers from his ACL tear.
A Swiss army knife of sorts along the offensive line, Mays was who the Panthers brought off the bench when Corbett fell injured in last season's finale, and he said he'd worked primarily at right guard and center throughout OTAs and minicamp.
"I feel more confident," Mays said. "I feel like I know the playbook better. I've been playing the majority (of reps) at right guard and center. I feel comfortable at those spots, and I just feel prepared. Like I come out here, and I feel like I'm ready."
Heading to Texas to continue that preparation is an add-on to Mays' work throughout the offseason. He said he has added more muscle, gotten more comfortable with the daily flow of the NFL, and the OLine Masterminds summit would be one of the final pieces ahead of training camp.
Mays said they'd rent a house in Texas for the weeks before training camp like last year. This summer, they have a pool, and he said they'll be doing a lot of swimming and cooking before meeting up with the rest of the team in Spartanburg.
"We're planning to do the same thing this offseason with some of my teammates I played with at Tennessee," Mays said. "It's a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie. Just a bunch of big guys in one house."
Ekwonu joined other NFL players as part of NFL Africa's outreach efforts in Kenya, helping to grow the game of football.