It was early March when the Panthers unofficially traded for Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung. Nearly six weeks later, everything is official and Okung finally got to talk about coming to Carolina.
The 31-year-old still hasn't gotten the chance to settle in at Bank of America Stadium due to the travel restrictions related to COVID-19. Navigating a global pandemic is clearly uncharted territory for Okung, but starting an offseason program later than expected is not. He was heading into his second year in the league during the lockout in 2011 when teams weren't able to begin workouts until late July.
"I think it's OK if we miss this time," Okung said. "I'm putting a lot of trust in our coaching staff, the players' abilities to be prepared and ready for the demands of the game. I think it's important to note the players I've talked to, they're working their tail off to be as competitive as they can for the year."
Teams are allowed to begin virtual offseason programs Monday. Those can run until May 15 and consist of online classroom sessions and virtual workouts.
No hard feelings
After three years with the Chargers, Okung was dealt to the Panthers in exchange for right guard Trai Turner. According to Okung, his exit had been in the works for a while.
"It was a conversation that the head coach, Anthony Lynn, and I had been having for some time," Okung said. "Some things just didn't work out and it came down to me being traded."
"(Lynn is) one of the greatest people, one of the greatest men I've ever been around," Okung added. "I think it's important also to note that the man stood next to me when I was going through my own personal health issues. He really stuck his neck out there to ensure that I'd be compensated for the year, and that's the sort of leader and man that I've always wanted to be around."
Now, he has his eyes set on what's ahead in Carolina.
"I'm excited. I can't wait to see what we're going to do this year, whenever that starts," Okung said. "I think they made a great decision going out to get me, and I'm happy with where I am."
Reuniting with Pat Meyer
Okung will have a familiar face waiting for him when he eventually arrives in Carolina. New offensive line coach Pat Meyer joined the Panthers in February after spending three years with the Chargers — and Okung.
"(Meyer is) a very eclectic dude," Okung said. "He's probably one of the smartest football minds I've ever been around. Definitely one that I respect. He's so diligent about his craft."
"Don't tell him I said any of this," he added, with a laugh. "I know he's probably watching every single guy that's on the team tirelessly. I know he can't wait to get back to work, just like me, so I'm looking forward to continuing to be together."
One of the perks of bringing in a veteran like Okung is his ability to mentor younger linemen, like second-year players Greg Little and Dennis Daley.
"I think you lead from the front," Okung said. "I know they're putting a lot on my shoulders in terms of being ready, in terms of passing on all the things that I've been given in my tenure in the NFL. I'll do just that."
With a new head coach and the exit of several star players, many have speculated whether the Panthers are rebuilding. That's not how Okung sees it.
"I've made it really clear, I'm not here to just rebuild," Okung said. "I'm here to win, and I'm here to win right now.
"I think, if anything, those that were brought in are just going to make us better, a more talented team."
Among the offensive pieces Okung praised were quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Christian McCaffrey.
"What a talent. What a real talent," Okung said of McCaffrey. "He is a playmaker. He makes plays all over the field.
"I heard he loves offensive linemen, so I look forward to a good Christmas gift from him."
Okung previously played for Chargers (2017-19), Broncos (2016) and Seahawks (2010-15).