MOBILE, Ala. — If the Panthers want to go from the Senior Bowl to the Super Bowl, there are some clear steps they need to take.
And the obvious need they have on the roster at the moment could make for some interesting evaluations up front, this week and beyond.
Asked earlier this week about the common denominators between the Chiefs and the Buccaneers heading into next weekend's Super Bowl, head coach Matt Rhule began with "elite quarterbacks, with really well-invested offensive lines."
"Look at Tampa Bay's offensive line," Rhule said. "You have the highest-paid center, you have a first-round draft pick, a second-round draft pick, another second-round draft pick. A really well-invested offensive line and a ton of weapons."
The Buccaneers have certainly spent their currency on things to protect Tom Brady (and Jameis Winston before him), with the aforementioned four-year, $42 million contract for center Ryan Jensen, and premium picks on right tackle Tristan Wirfs (13th overall in 2020), left tackle Donovan Smith (34th overall in 2015), and left guard Ali Marpet (61st overall in 2015).
On the other hand, the Panthers have exactly one starting offensive lineman under contract at the moment, which makes line coach Pat Meyer's work with the prospects at the Senior Bowl among the most important.
Beyond center Matt Paradis, the rest of the Panthers' starting linemen are pending free agents, beginning with right tackle Taylor Moton. While they could use the franchise tag to keep him off the market, he's a big-ticket item at a time when they need to buy in bulk. Left tackle Russell Okung and guards John Miller and Chris Reed and backups Michael Schofield and Tyler Larsen are also set to be unrestricted free agents, so change is coming.
Meyer said he loved the group he had last year from a personality and chemistry standpoint, but isn't blind to the reality.
"I would like to get them all back. Is that possible? No, I know that," Meyer said.
"I'd like to keep them all, but that's not the nature of the business, so it's like, hey, let's elevate some guys, get somebody in, draft somebody. It's part of the game, and it's cyclical."
The Panthers are coaching an interesting mix of linemen, who could help fill a number of issues for them.
But one of the most intriguing prospects on their American team roster hasn't even practiced this week.
Alabama center Landon Dickerson is still recovering from surgery, after a knee injury knocked him out of the SEC Championship Game. The 6-foot-6, 326-pound Dickerson — who grew up in suburban Hickory, NC and attended South Caldwell High — has the potential to play four positions according to scouts (everything but left tackle), and NFL teams love that kind of versatility.
On the other end of the physical and name-recognition spectrum is Grambling's David Moore, who hasn't snapped at all before this week, and lacks Dickerson's imposing build. Moore is 6-foot-1 1/2 and 350 pounds, built like a bulldozer, and able to move guys around like one.
Rhule has been interested in watching him work, especially since Grambling didn't play football last season, so Moore's had a long layoff.
"He hasn't played since Thanksgiving, not the last one, the one before that," Rhule pointed out.
Moore has caught some eyes this week, and Meyer noted that while he lacks prototypical size, he also has 32 5/8-inch arms, giving him sufficient reach.
"He's long, he's just short," Meyer said helpfully.
But those two are just part of a group the Panthers will be considering when the draft rolls around.
They've also gotten close looks at Alabama left tackle Alex Leatherwood and widebody guard Deonte Brown (all 6-foot-3 and 364 pounds of him), plus a group of intriguing prospects, including Texas A&M tackle Carson Green. East Carolina tackle D'Ante Green has moved well in practices, though his lean frame (6-5, 294 pounds) still needs some time to develop.
There are literally all shapes and sizes of blockers in practice, and the Panthers are rotating them through multiple positions to learn as much as they can.
Meyer said what they're learning on the field and in the meeting rooms is helpful beyond the measurable stuff.
"We all have standards. You want to have at least this or that, but what it comes down to is can they play?" Meyer said. "You want a tackle that has 35-inch arms, or a guard that's 315 pounds. But at the end of the day, can they play, do they love football, are they going to help us and help the team win? That's the most important thing.
"You'd love to have the guys who love the game, have the skill set, and have the measurables, so it's good to be able to go through all of those options."
Of course, fans will get hung up on the first part of Rhule's Super Bowl formula — the "elite quarterback" part — but building a firm foundation has to happen for the Panthers to improve.
View photos from the American team's third practice in Mobile, Ala.