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Carolina Panthers

Offensive line fix may not mean many new names

Taylor Moton, Brady Christensen

CHARLOTTE — For months, the Panthers have readily admitted what one of their biggest offseason priorities would be.

Next week, they get to start acting on it.

The Panthers look ahead to the start of free agency with a clear need to improve the offensive line, and a few avenues to pursue which could get them there. But it's likely to be more a more surgical approach than a total revamp.

Part of that will be developing some existing young options under a coach with a reputation for making players better. But part of that's going to be bringing in some help, even if it's not the kind of bulk purchases some might expect.

When you're dealing with offensive linemen, part of the problem is perception. Casual fans are mostly aware of the names of the very top linemen in the league, the kind of guys who seldom become available. This year, there are some brand-name players actually on the market, but as we explained earlier this week, the Panthers aren't poised to make a splash for an established left tackle like Terron Armstead or a Pro Bowl regular like guard Brandon Scherff.

But the Panthers don't need names, they need a couple of parts to build with. And armed with the sixth pick in a draft deep in tackles, there's a chance to create a significant improvement without blowing the budget on one guy in March.

The sixth overall pick offers a chance to find a long-term answer at left tackle. Even if Evan Neal and Ickey Ekwonu go in the top five, there's a group of guys including Charles Cross, Trevor Penning, and a few others who could give the Panthers hope at a position they haven't had since Jordan Gross retired.

That's a more cost-effective approach than finding a solution in free agency.

While Armstead is one of the top tackles in the game, he could also command $20 million a year on a long-term deal. That would chew up the bulk of the room created by a couple of restructured contracts over the last week. But the guard market is particularly deep, and full of players who would be of immediate help. Scherff played under the franchise tag in Washington the last two seasons, and will be looking for top-of-the-market money. And he'll deserve it. There are plenty of options beyond him, though.

Players such as Laken Tomlinson and James Daniels (unknown to many fans, but known commodities in the league) would provide immediate upgrades, but both could be costly. Austin Corbett just won a Super Bowl ring with the Rams, and the former second-round pick is still just 26, which would make him an intriguing fit on multiple levels. Some older options, including Rodger Saffold and former Panther Andrew Norwell, are also more than serviceable.

And someone from that group, or an equivalent, arriving in free agency is a reasonable expectation.

If the Panthers are able to find a better-than-capable starting guard in free agency, and head into a tackle-heavy draft with a top-10 pick, then things begin to look a lot more stable up front without the kind of drastic overhaul some might expect.

They know they have an answer at right tackle in Taylor Moton. Pat Elflein played better at center than he did at guard early last year, and has the kind of toughness and experience in the middle a developing team needs.

There's also a clump of young players who got varying degrees of time last year who offer some promise.

First among those is Brady Christensen, who could play left tackle. But if they find one of those in the draft, Christensen would likely slide inside to guard. Regardless, they view him as a starter.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule admitted at the Combine that he was torn about how Christensen was used last year. He started six games, bouncing from side to side and from tackle to guard and back, before settling in at left tackle late.

"I may well should have stepped up say, ''Hey, let's play him earlier,'" Rhule said. "But I do think playing him slow allowed him to play really well at the end of the year. And so there was some benefit to it. But you know, in some ways, I wonder if we should have done it better."

Rhule also said the offense under new coordinator Ben McAdoo would be a little more physical up front, with more "downhill" running. That suits larger players such as Deonte Brown (6-foot-4, 335 pounds) and Michael Jordan (6-foot-6, 315 pounds), the kind of young players new line coach James Campen has had success grooming in the past. His lines in Green Bay seldom featured first-round picks (and it's obviously easier when you have a star quarterback), but he developed a number of mid-round picks into solid starters, if not stars.

That can't be the only method, however. They need to find at least a couple of upgrades in free agency and the draft.

Regardless of what happens at any other position, that's what the Panthers need to accomplish. And even though they'll likely be active next week in terms of gauging the market, they don't have to make the biggest splash to make a significant improvement.

View photos of offensive line prospects going through drills at the 2022 NFL Combine.

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