CHARLOTTE – Early in the 2014 season, the offensive line was an injury-riddled area of concern for the Panthers. By the end of the season, two rookie guards helped turn it into an area of justifiable optimism.
Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell took different routes to Carolina. But they ended their first NFL season as a tight-knit, physically-imposing guard tandem with so much to look forward to.
"Me and Andrew are really close," Turner said. "We came in together. It wasn't about who was drafted, who wasn't drafted. We were in the same situation so we built each other up and helped each other out."
Turner elected to turn pro after his redshirt sophomore season at Louisiana State. NFL scouts touted his potential and despite being only 20 years old at the time, Turner entered the draft confident he'd be at least a mid-round draft choice. The Panthers selected him in the third round.
Norwell was a four-year contributor and three-year starter at Ohio State, but he didn't generate much buzz in scouting circles and went undrafted. The Panthers, who considered him a mid-round prospect, made sure to sign Norwell as an undrafted free agent.
Neither was a starter when the season began. Turner, who sustained a preseason groin injury, was splitting reps with veteran Fernando Velasco at right guard, and Norwell was inactive for the first six games.
Turner made his first career start in Week 5 against the Chicago Bears and then started the next two games with his share of ups and downs before a knee injury sidelined him for three weeks.
"I came in eyes wide open, not knowing what to expect," Turner said. "I got my feet wet, then battled through injury a little bit."
Norwell made his first career start in Week 8 against the Seattle Seahawks and remained in the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
"It took a while for me, because the first six weeks I was inactive," Norwell said. "Once some injuries happened, I got in there and I stepped up."
Turner returned to action against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11, and that's when things finally started settling in. Norwell became entrenched at left guard and Turner at right.
With their confidence growing each week, the rookies provided the Panthers with stability and power up front, and the running game took off. Running back Jonathan Stewart finished as the league's second-leading rusher over the last five weeks of the regular season with 486 yards.
The pass protection improved as well, with Carolina surrendering just five sacks during the four-game winning streak to close the regular season that resulted in the NFC South title.
"I became more comfortable and more confident in myself and my abilities," Turner said. "I've seen myself make leaps and bounds throughout the season. It not only showed on the field but in the meeting room with the other guys. They knew that I would be ready."
Said Norwell: "Losing all those games was frustrating, but we turned it around. It was a crazy experience. I feel like each game I got better. I improved on my technique a lot."
The Panthers stuck with the ground and pound formula to earn their first playoff win since 2005. Carolina controlled the line of scrimmage and amassed 188 rushing yards in the 27-16 NFC Wild Card victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
The season ended a week later in the divisional round against the Seattle Seahawks and their stingy front seven, who wrestled away control of the line scrimmage during a physical, smash-mouth encounter.
"When you get into the playoffs you are playing good fronts," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "There's a reason those teams get into the playoffs."
To gain the upper hand against those fronts, you need toughness in the trenches. Gettleman used that word among others to describe both rookie guards.
"Trai is very talented. He's got the power and he's tough as hell," Gettleman said. "And he's a really good athlete. It was a matter of getting healthy and rolling.
"Andrew brings enthusiasm, aggressiveness and toughness that you can't put a price tag on. You put a premium on the element of toughness with your offensive linemen."
Offensive linemen know toughness when they see it. Turner, known to play with a mean-streak, marveled at Norwell's relentlessly aggressive approach to every snap.
"Every play is 100 percent nasty with Andrew. And I thought I was physical," Turner said with a laugh. "That's something I want to add into my game. I had my plays, but with him it's every play. I love that, man. He pumps me up."
Norwell, a quiet, reserved individual off the field, lauded Turner's technical ability in the run game.
"He's a physical run blocker and he stays low," Norwell said. "Overall, Trai's got great talent."
Both Turner and Norwell acknowledged the need for individual improvement across the board this offseason. The rookie label no longer applies, and they'll enter 2015 with greater expectations.
"I'm never satisfied with where I'm at," Norwell said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work, and it starts all over again."
For the Panthers, it's an enviable starting point on the interior, with youngsters Turner and Norwell flanking veteran, four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. It's a combination that could help Carolina consistently control the line of scrimmage for years to come.
"Am I excited that the interior three is set?" Gettleman said. "Absolutely."