CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have been busy this offseason, and hope to continue to add some resources to their offensive line soon, either in the draft or potentially free agency. That level of investment in linemen hasn't always been the kind of thing you can assume here.
But they're fortunate to have a line coach now in James Campen, who has proven he can work with what's on hand and often make it better.
That reputation also helped recruit some of free agents this offseason, reinforcements the team needed.
"I'm really excited about working with coach Campen," new center Bradley Bozeman said Wednesday, during the first week of the team's offseason program. "One of the reasons I came here, I really feel like I can grow as a football player here. I felt like I could become a better man, become a better player. All around, just take my football skill and knowledge to the next level with him."
By bringing the 57-year-old Campen in this offseason, the Panthers added a coach with not just experience, but the kind that could serve him well in this particular instance. The Panthers haven't drafted an offensive lineman in the first round since Jeff Otah in 2008, and haven't started the same left tackle two years in a row since Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season.
They did invest in Bozeman and guard Austin Corbett early in free agency, but they did so because they needed to add talent to the group. The Panthers started 13 different groups of linemen in 17 games last season, and there's only one former first-rounder (tackle Cameron Erving) among the current group.
But when Campen was in Green Bay, he coached six different Pro Bowl blockers, a group which included a second-rounder (Chad Clifton), three fourth-rounders (Josh Sitton, David Bakhtiari, and T.J. Lang), a seventh-rounder (Scott Wells), and a former undrafted rookie (Jeff Saturday in his final season). Granted, having a certain former first-round quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) made a lot of that work easier, but the point stands.
Campen has a reputation for developing players, but also for developing groups of individuals into a greater whole.
Asked if there was a common trait among those Packers blockers who succeeded despite pedigree, Campen kept going back to the group dynamic.
"Is he productive? Did he win? If he's from a smaller school, does he dominate that level? Those things are important," Campen said. "I just think, what is his attitude? You can find out a lot just watching the tape. If a team is struggling and losing 48-10, and there's four minutes to go, and you're still in there playing, does his production go up, does it stay the same, is he still fighting? You look for those things.
"And as a lineman, you've got to be a dang good teammate. You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself in the makeup of the team. In the O-line room, you have to be that giving. And when you look for people like that, they fill in the gaps, and you have a pretty good core."
That's a fairly philosophical answer, especially at a time of year when measurables in draft prep are dissected to the fractions of an inch. But Campen made several references to preferring production to numbers, along with the human element in the room.
And he also knows how to keep the group paying attention.
Corbett was laughing when he sat down for his videoconference interview Wednesday, because Campen accidentally let a few profanities slide out, while he was trying to reel in one of the big bad ones.
"Oh boy that almost slipped," Campen said, when he almost said the kind of thing you can't put on a family website. "Whoa. That almost slipped there. See, you got me. Is this on like live? S---, I mean shoot."
It was an authentic moment, a glimpse behind the curtain, the kind those who know him say you can expect. Corbett played for Campen briefly in Cleveland in 2019 (before the Browns traded Corbett to the Rams), and said Campen was also part of the reason he chose to sign here.
"Just having that relationship coming in, knowing him, who he is, how he coaches and everything, it's definitely been helpful," Corbett said. "He's just a great coach, and a great guy, a truly genuine, wants to know you, wants to care about you, and really take care of you in every way.
"He's going to say some things off the wall, as you guys noticed there, but he'll catch himself, he'll laugh at himself, and that's a good thing. He knows when it's time to be serious, but at the same time, you've got to be able to break things up and have some fun because it's a grind and a long season. So just to break things up, he does a fantastic job at that."
He also knows when it's time to work, and he's getting to know his new group. By adding Corbett (a starter for the Super Bowl champions) and Bozeman (who started every game the last three years for the Ravens), there's a different gravity here.
And while they haven't been on the field yet, Campen likes what he sees so far.
"The thing you see, and you hope for is the willingness to learn; you can see it in their eyes," Campen said. "The attention to detail, they're focused and intent when they're in there. You have guys, I believe, that care for each other. Early on, O-linemen are a little different. They're busting each other's chops, then get back to work; you like to have some of that human nature in the room.
"But I'm a firm believer in relationships, and respecting the guys that are next to each other, and helping the guys next to each other. Linemen, at the end of the day, there's a lot of great linemen, but they're really as good as the guy next to them because they've got to work in unison together. And I see that happening here early. I'm excited; I truly am to be here and be with this group."
View photos from the weight room as Panthers players returned for offseason workouts on Monday.