CHARLOTTE – Given Taylor Moton's impressive credentials coming out of college, some believed he would be the Panthers' starting right tackle as a rookie last season. Instead, incumbent starter Daryl Williams kept his spot and shined, earning second-team All-Pro honors while Moton learned how to be a pro.
That's a shining example of the valuable depth that Carolina's offensive line has amassed.
"I enjoyed the process day in and day out, learning from all the starters," Moton said. "They all taught me a lot of lessons about what it means to be a professional football player, things I'll take with me for years to come to make myself a better player.
"I'm really lucky to be a part of an organization like this, and now I'm just excited to get better this offseason and do what I can to help the team moving forward."
Moton's role going forward is up for debate. Last year's entire starting offensive line save first-team All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell is under contract for next season. If Norwell doesn't re-sign with the Panthers, reserves with guard experience like Amini Silatolu (another potential free agent), Tyler Larsen and the recently re-signed Greg Van Roten could get a chance to step in and step up.
Could the same apply to Moton, the Panthers' second-round draft pick a year ago?
"He's a physical, athletic big dude who can probably play anywhere," Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner said. "We'll see. We'll see. That's interesting."
At Western Michigan, Moton started at right guard as a junior in 2015.
"I'm not a tackle; I'm a football player. Wherever the team most needs me, that's where I am," Moton said. "This offseason, I'll take tackle sets, guard sets and I'll be snapping the ball. I'll feel comfortable wherever they decide to throw me in."
Here's the bottom line: Whether Norwell, someone else already on the roster, a free agent currently with another team or a 2018 draft pick starts at left guard next season, the Panthers have plenty of options.
"The guys that we have in key positions have all played at one point or another, and we also have some young guys that we can develop as we go forward," head coach Ron Rivera said last week. "It's huge because if you can't protect your quarterback – which we found out in 2016 – you'll struggle as a football team."
Strictly from a statistical standpoint, the line's last three seasons have all been comparable when it comes to sacks allowed (between 33 and 36 each year), but that's largely a testament to quarterback Cam Newton's elusiveness more so than it is to the offensive line's consistency.
That's not to say the line hasn't been consistent when it's been healthy. In 2015, when the Week 1 starters were in the lineup at their respective positions for all but four games, the Panthers went 15-1 and reached Super Bowl 50. This past season, starters missed 13 games, and Carolina went 10-6 and returned to the playoffs following a one-year absence.
That absence, in 2016, saw starters either out of action or out of position 37 times, and the Panthers went 6-10. There were gains made through the pain, however, with Williams getting his first 10 starts at right tackle and Larsen getting his five first at center – experience that paid dividends when he had to replace Ryan Kalil for 10 games in 2017.
"I like who Tyler Larsen is; I like who Taylor Moton is. I like what Greg (Van Roten) has done for us," Rivera said. "Blaine (Clausell) can be a guy, with a little more experience, who can help us. Then Amini Silatolu is a guy who has started for us at either guard position."
At tackle, the Panthers have Moton and Clausell behind Williams and Matt Kalil. Clausell, a staple along Mississippi State's offensive line during the Dak Prescott era, has spent his first three NFL seasons predominantly on practice squads. Before Carolina's game against the Saints in the NFC Divisional playoffs, however, the Panthers promoted him to the 53-man roster (though he was inactive on game day).
"He's a guy that we felt we had to activate because somebody might have plucked him," Rivera said. "He's a solid performer."
While Clausell hasn't appeared in a regular season game, Moton appeared in every game as a rookie. Four times it was solely on special teams, but he averaged about four snaps per game along the offensive line – most of them as a sixth offensive lineman in the "Jumbo" package the Panthers often employ in short-yardage situations.
It wasn't nearly the role some forecasted for him, but it was valuable nonetheless for a player whose value to the Panthers should only increase in the future.
"It was a roller coaster of a ride. I learned a lot – one of the biggest learning experiences I've ever had," Moton said. "It was really good for me to get those snaps, to get a feel for what NFL football is really about.
"It's all valuable. I'm just going to learn from the experience and have a better go at it next year. I'm just excited about the future now."