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Panthers hope offensive line answers questions

Pat Meyer

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are aware of the concern. It's not a matter of denial.

But as they enter a season with a new-look offensive line that plenty of people are wondering about, suffice it to say they like their guys more than some football analysts like their guys.

When the team signed Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein early in free agency, the moves were widely panned by places such as Pro Football Focus, the website which grades linemen individually.

But there were specific things about each of those guys that the Panthers saw, factors which they hope will come to the fore in the coming weeks, since so much depends on the protection for quarterback Sam Darnold.

"We're not necessarily turning on a tape or seeing the PFF grade or anything like that, or seeing who graded highest, and that's who we're going to target," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. "We're looking for skill sets, looking for what they can bring, whether it's a mindset or personality and a certain type of fit in our offense that maybe they are able to showcase in a previous offense or they weren't. That's the little things we look at."

Cameron Erving

Offensive line coach Pat Meyer, as is not uncommon in his line of work, was more blunt.

"Is it frustrating to me? I could care less what the world says," Meyer said. "They're our guys, we're going to train them the right way to play the way we want them to play, and we'll find out on Sunday how that is."

Grading linemen can be tricky, especially without knowledge of their assignments. And as with most things football, it's often more complicated than it first appears because there are so many things happening at once. A good line can look like it's struggling if a quarterback holds onto the ball too long, or receivers can't get open. A bad line can get credit it doesn't deserve if their quarterback has a quick release, and the game plan is designed for shorter passes.

So when the Panthers were shopping this offseason, they were looking for specific traits.

As it pertains to Erving, the thing they're latching onto is his athleticism, his wingspan (84 1/8 inches), and the fact he's never really been allowed to settle into one spot.

He's played all five positions in his NFL career, and he brightens up when he talks about the fact they trust him to concentrate on one thing.

"I mean, this is year seven for me in the NFL, and this is the first time I've been told I have to play one position," Erving said. "Everywhere else I've been shuffled around, and had to do a lot of different things.

"But finally coming to a place where the scheme I feel like fits, being able to run, get big guys in space, those are the things I think benefit me."

As he said that, a group of other linemen walked by clapping, appreciative of his efforts and trying to distract him as he talked to reporters, so he waved back.

"Thanks guys," Erving said to them. "We're all each other's fan club."

While that club may not be as large as others around the league, there are those who think — or hope — that it can work.

"He has physical traits," Brady said of Erving. "He's long; he's athletic, he brings versatility. We see a guy that can run like Cam; with his length he can get his hands on you, and really has a physical element to him. The issue with Cam, he's not been fortunate; he's missed some games. On tape, we were pleased and excited with what he did; we felt like he was going to be our left tackle."

Likewise, Brady said there are things that stand out about Elflein which will allow him to compete.

Pat Elflein

"The same thing with Pat, he had a couple of hiccups with injuries recently, but when you turn on (the film on) Pat, he's physical; he just gets after it. He's got that Ohio wrestler mindset. We loved that about him. We felt like that scrappiness, that mindset's something we wanted to bring to the offensive line."

The wrestling background is useful, especially on the interior line when space is tight, and you have to understand things like hand placement and leverage to try to gain an advantage.

Elflein said he started wrestling in seventh grade, and was a two-time state qualifier in Ohio. He talked about the technique and the discipline required, and those are things he's going to have to rely on.

"Basically, I played football on the mat," Elflein said of his wrestling career. "There was some technique thrown in, which helps, but mostly it was about being aggressive, up in guys' faces, and driving them. . . .

"I've always tried to play with a motor, to play hard, to play as strong as I can and take care of my body to keep that up."

That last part highlights one of the concerns about Elflein. At 305 pounds, he's carrying far less mass than the prototypical guard. For Meyer, the experience Elflein has in the league, and his attitude, can overcome part of that.

"Effort. Being a tough guy, being tenacious, that type of stuff," Meyer said when asked how Elflein can compensate. "Being an ex-wrestler, playing with leverage, playing with hand control. Getting on guys quickly, those are the things you have to do when you're somewhat undersized at guard. Also, he's done it, he's played both guard and center.

"It's just about setting up quick, getting on guys, controlling them with the upper body, the play-style we like, being aggressive, and staying after guys."

Getting the line ready for the opener was also complicated by the last-minute loss of right guard John Miller, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He'll be replaced by Dennis Daley this week, meaning center Matt Paradis and right tackle Taylor Moton are the only holdovers from last year's opener.

Is it an ideal set-up? Probably not. Would a team love to have four or five first-round picks up front, or have the same five guys for months or years at a time? Of course.

But Meyer's hoping those specific things they saw in the newcomers work to their advantage.

"Players that love the game, number one," he said of Erving and Elflein. "Both guys on film play extremely hard. That's us; that's our brand. We're going to be tough, work hard, and be competitive, and that's what we saw from those guys. Plus the skill set of those guys, we looked at that, and we thought they had the skill set for our style of play."

And as they go into the season, they know a lot is riding on their being right.

View photos from Thursday's practice in Week 1 as the Panthers prepare to face the Jets.

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