CHARLOTTE -- Ryan Kalil has played in just one game since last October. Now it appears he may not play again until the 2017 calendar flips to October – at the earliest.
First, the center was a late scratch in Week 2 after showing up to the stadium with "a crick in his neck." Then, Kalil missed both practices this week, putting his status for Sunday's matchup with the Saints very much in doubt.
"There's concern, obviously," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We also have two more days left."
But rarely do guys play Sunday when they don't practice Wednesday or Thursday. That puts Tyler Larsen in line to make his seventh career start – all since last December.
If you don't know Larsen's history, the short of it is he's one of the best stories on the team.
In the winter of 2015, Larsen and his wife were living with his parents in Utah.
After starting a school-record 52 straight games at Utah State, Larsen went undrafted in 2014. He spent a couple of summers in NFL training camps – first with Miami and then Washington – but he couldn't stick on a regular season roster. So in 2015, while his peers lived out their dreams, Larsen and his wife were living with his parents in Utah while he dug ditches for his father's landscaping company.
But as the Panthers were wrapping up their 15-1 season, they brought Larsen in for a tryout. A month later, he signed a futures contract. Six months after that, he made his first 53-man roster. And in December, with Kalil and No. 1 backup Gino Gradkowski on injured reserve, Larsen found himself starting in Seattle on national television.
The Panthers were routed by 33 points that night, but Larsen and the line held a normally salty Seahawks' defense without a sack.
"Being able to go into that crazy atmosphere in Seattle and how well we performed that game as an offensive line," Larsen recalled Wednesday, "I think that's what really started it and planted an idea that I could be here and I could actually make an impact with this team. After that, it slowly kept building, kind of a snowball effect as better things kept happening."
Like a new contract. It didn't immediately make him rich for life, but the one-year exclusive rights tender the 26-year-old signed in March put him a long way from digging ditches.
"Me and my wife talk about it all the time," Larsen said when asked about how much his life has changed in the past year and a half.
"We're filling up our car and we think about how sometimes we had to run on empty and were surprised the fuel pump didn't run out because we didn't have any money to put in there."
As solid as Larsen has been in his spot starts, there are reasons Kalil has made five Pro Bowls. And while many things factored into the Bills' six sacks on quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers probably missed Kalil's valuable communication skills.
Still, the Panthers believe the dropoff from Kalil to Larsen isn't as big as many may assume. Besides, as the NFL cliché goes: The best ability is availability.
"Sometimes all a guy needs is a chance to play and the circumstances were just right for him to get that opportunity," Rivera said.
"He's very smart. He's athletic. He's got a good anchor. He's powerful. He's really a solid football player."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against the Saints.