Panthers profess faith in tackle options


CHARLOTTE - After a multitude of mock drafters predicted the Panthers would select an offensive tackle in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, some fans couldn't believe that Carolina didn't select an offensive tackle in any round.

Perhaps they don't believe in the offensive tackles on the roster like general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera do.

Perhaps they should.

"Once you got past that top tier of tackles, there was a huge dropoff," Gettleman said moments after the Panthers made their sixth and final pick of the draft. "For us, we just felt the guys we have on our roster that are going to compete for those spots were just as good if not better than what we were staring at."

Before the draft, Gettleman said there were a total of nine or 10 offensive tackles and wide receivers – perceived by analysts as the Panthers' greatest areas of need – with first-round grades. A total of nine offensive tackles and wide receivers had been drafted when the Panthers went on the clock for the 28th overall choice and selected Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, with Gettleman declaring afterwards that Benjamin was the highest-rated player on Carolina's board.

In the second round, with Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses still available – the odds-on favorite among mockers to be the Panthers' first-round pick – Carolina selected Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy. Like Benjamin before, Ealy was the highest-rated player on the Panthers' board. Like Benjamin, the Panthers gave him a first-round grade.

Most Panthers fans seem to be onboard with the Panthers' early-round approach, but with five draft picks remaining (actually four after a trade), many believed Carolina would still draft an offensive tackle at some point in light of left tackle Jordan Gross' retirement.

But just like they did during the heart of free agency, the Panthers passed.

"I'm not a checkbox guy. 'We need this position, so we're just going to go draft that guy?' I just don't think it's prudent," Gettleman said. "The value wasn't there.

"I say it all the time, oftentimes the answer is on your roster. We have two guys we feel are going to compete on the roster right now, and we're going to see what develops."

Starting right tackle Byron Bell returns, but the left-hander might well end up on the left side in Gross' old spot. Nate Chandler, a converted defensive tackle who started the final eight games last season, is also in the mix. Six of his starts were at right guard, but two – in victories over New England and Tampa Bay – were at right tackle. Chandler played just a few snaps before moving back to right guard, but the coaching staff got a glimpse of how he looked at tackle and believe he's now ready to shift there for good.

Then there's Garry Williams, a sixth-year pro who started 11 games at right tackle in 2010. He was set to start at right tackle in 2011 before breaking his ankle in the preseason finale and then made starts at both right tackle and right guard in 2012. Williams opened 2013 as the Panthers' starting right guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the opener.

The simplest way to explain why the Panthers didn't draft an offensive tackle is this: Players at other positions made more sense in the first few rounds, while the offensive tackles available in the final few rounds simply didn't exceed what Bell, Chandler and Williams offer in the Panthers' opinion.

Bell, Chandler and Williams were all undrafted out of college. That doesn't mean they'd be undrafted now.

"Again, evaluating our own players, I like where we're at," Gettleman said. "We feel we've got a very good handle on the players on our club."

The Panthers clearly trust the trio and trust the coaching staff to bring the best out in them – with good reason. Offensive line coaches John Matsko and Ray Brown have a history of doing just that.

Take last season, when injuries left the Panthers without left guard Amini Silatolu for nearly the entire year and forced them to employ six different starting guards, including Chandler in his first season on offense. The Panthers finished 12-4.

Or look back to 2012, when Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil missed most of the season and the Panthers used eight different starting combinations. Even with Thomas Austin and Jeff Byers pressed into starting duty down the stretch, Carolina won five of its final six games.

This isn't to say the Panthers will definitely stand pat at tackle. They had enough faith in their guard group last preseason to release veteran Geoff Hangartner, but when injuries mounted, they signed Travelle Wharton and eventually re-signed Hangartner. And they kept on winning.

While keeping a close watch on how their current tackles develop, they'll surely keep their eyes open for possible opportunities to add depth between now and the regular season opener in 116 days.

But if better options don't materialize – much like they didn't materialize during the draft – it might just be because the tackles the Panthers currently have are equipped to do the job.

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