Offensive line rebuild coming into focus

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CHARLOTTE — Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has been here long enough that you can tell certain things about him.

Namely, when it comes to players, he has a type.

Very few people on the Panthers' roster (with the possible exception of long snapper J.J. Jansen and the quarterbacks) are trained for just one job, so it's no different with the offensive linemen they've brought in during free agency.

By signing Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein in the first wave, the Panthers added a pair of versatile blockers to the mix. This week's return of incumbent right guard John Miller has brought a little more clarity, but having guys able to do more than one thing is clearly something they value.

Elflein doesn't mind that a bit, as he talks about his past travels through the three interior positions. He's good enough that he can casually mention he moved from guard to center for his senior year at Ohio State "and won the Rimington" (the award given to the nation's top college center), so he has the credentials.

"What I think's unique about me is that I can play all three of those positions at a very high level, a starter level I feel like," he said Wednesday. "When you adjust from different ones, it just takes a couple of weeks, or a week, to get in that stance, get comfortable, but once you get in your groove, it's smooth sailing for me. I've got comfort at all three of them and I feel like I can perform at all three of them.

"But I'm versatile and a high-level being versatile. Wherever it ends up, we're going to have a great unit."

Since the Panthers entered the offseason with just one starter under contract (center Matt Paradis), the line was a bit of a blank canvas. But after tagging right tackle Taylor Moton and bringing back Miller, the right side is back from last year, making it reasonable to suggest that left guard could be where Elflein begins.

That leaves left tackle, and while Erving has also bounced around himself, he's hoping that's where he could find a home.

The former first-round pick of the Browns has played all five line positions in the NFL, but filled in at left tackle in Dallas last year when injuries hit. It brought him back to his days at Florida State, but he's also been around long enough to know things can change in an instant.

"Yeah, you know nobody gives you anything in this league, that's first things first," Erving said when he arrived last week. "But they wanted me to come in here and compete to play left tackle. That's something I've been striving for and wanting to do for a long time in my career. I've bounced around, played a lot of different things, and it's taught me a lot of lessons, but being able to come back and play the position I started at would be just a great blessing.

"Early on, it was difficult for me. But as your career goes on, you learn more, and the game slows down for you. Last year, I was able to play for five games, injuries kept me out some, but I felt like it was some of the best football I played. For me to have that feeling was good, but I feel like I can play even better than I did last year. Being able to build off that is huge."

Erving played both guard spots and center during stints with the Browns and Chiefs, and the 28-year-old said it took him some time to realize what it took to establish himself in any spot.

"Honestly, it's just focus," he said. "I didn't really understand the focus it took to be successful at this level. I didn't understand the aggression you need to be successful at this level. I kind of tiptoed through things my first couple of years, still trying to figure it out, still new to different positions at the time."

The Panthers have some other options at tackle — they liked what Trent Scott did last year when he filled in — and they may use draft picks (plural) to add some youth to the position as well.

While the starting lineup might not be set in stone, they hope they're establishing a certain mindset as they add pieces.

Elflein might be the guy who sets that tone.

"I play with an attitude, I play with energy," the former Vikings third-round pick said. "I like finishing people downfield. I'm a nasty player, that's what I like to bring, and that's what I like to hang my hat on. That's the position is about."

Asked what "nasty" looks like on the field, he offered the kind of job description any coach would like to replicate.

"Finishing people down the field, burying them in the ground," he replied. "Once I grab ahold of you, I'm going to try to finish you, every time.

"It's a tough league, that doesn't always happen, but that's my mission every time I put my hand in the ground."

View photos of offensive lineman Pat Elflein during his years with Minnesota (2017-20) and the New York Jets (2020).

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