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Notebook: Dave Canales likes new-look offensive line


ORLANDO, Fla. — If it wasn't obvious by the money they spent on the offensive line in free agency, listening to Panthers head coach Dave Canales for more than a moment Tuesday made it clear how much of an emphasis he put on fixing that area.

After they extended $150 million worth of contracts to guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis in the opening hours of the market, they moved veteran guard Austin Corbett to center, creating an interior that Canales believes can become a personality.

"Inside out, let us get our football right," Canales said when asked about signing Hunt away from the Dolphins. "Let's build this thing inside out. He was priority number one in free agency to say, OK, we're going to have an attitude about how we play football.

"How do you show toughness? How do you show attitude? You run the football. So go get the best guard in football. To me, people talk about (49ers left tackle) Trent Williams as a tackle; you talk about Robert Hunt as a guard. This is a guy who's got the attitude. He's got the size, the athleticism. It's the whole package to be able to build our run game, to build the mentality of our offense. Starting with him up front was a huge get for us."

Moving Corbett is a bit of a projection. He's played some center in the past, but Canales said there are qualities he's already witnessed in Corbett that make him think he's going to make the transition well.

"Well, it's a specific role for a guy who's a leader," Canales said. "You can get away with it when a guy isn't vocal; you can get away with it when a guy isn't like the true alpha type of personality. You can get away with that, but you really would love your center to be like the middle linebacker and be the quarterback of the offensive line. And Corbs is that. He's a man's man; when he talks, people listen. He's just natural for this, and for us to have the opportunity to go get the guards that we did to add Austin into that mix as a center to be able to piece it all together, the continuity of the tackles with a couple of new guys, a lot of guys just talking along the line. It's really a dream scenario. And so I love this challenge.

"I love this challenge for Austin to really kind of branch out of his comfort zone a little bit at this time. But I also just love to forget about the football part. I just love the personal chemistry of what we're building there because it's definitely the offensive line is about chemistry. As we all know, teams play with five or six combinations of offensive linemen all year; that's really hard, you know. And so I know that there will be some changes, there will be things that will happen that are out of our control. But, you know, from day one, I just can't help but feel really good going into this season with the front five that we have right now in Austin being the center of that."

Yes, sometimes things happen no one expects, like having to play seven different left guards and eight different right guards in a season. Canales and Dan Morgan wanted to make sure that didn't happen again.

— The expectations for the Panthers are not high, which is what happens when you go 2-15 the season before and don't have a first-round pick. 

But Canales said Tuesday he believes the Panthers can compete in an improved NFC South, which is a thing that any coach would say. 

After discussing all the moves in the division this year, including Atlanta adding coach Raheem Morris and quarterback Kirk Cousins, Canales said he thinks the NFC South is now "a dangerous division."

"I really just think people are going to be really surprised about this year and the level of football that comes out of it," he said. "I think we're going to be competitive for the division this year. And what I'm saying is if we play good football, if we can get the football right, like we believe we can, and we can take care of the football, that the numbers take care of themselves. We'll be in the hunt, and we'll be in every single game, which will give us an opportunity to be in the hunt for the division at the end.

"And if we can play great defense and run it, it will carry us right into the late into the season."

He was then asked how he'd talk about expectations since the Panthers' being competitive is not a universally shared opinion.

"For me, it starts with the division, so you're looking to win the division every year," he said. "You'd love to win the championship, but it all starts off by winning the division. How can we do that? And then you work backward from there. We've got to get our football right. . . .

"Every one of those games is going to be a huge opportunity for us to become us to see what version of football we want to play. We want to walk out of that field saying this is Panthers football. It's tough, it's fast. It's physical, it's really intelligent."

DJ Johnson

— The Panthers are still looking for help at outside linebacker, maintaining a line of communication with Jadeveon Clowney.

But Canales said he was optimistic about the options on hand at the moment. He likes the addition of free agent D.J. Wonnum but went through the rest of a limited depth chart there and had encouraging words about several young players who have yet to prove themselves.

They drafted DJ Johnson in the third round last year, and got some snaps out of Amaré Barno and Eku Leota last season, and also have Luiji Vilain rounding out the depth chart along with newcomer K'Lavon Chaisson.

But Wonnum is likely to miss time in OTAs coming off a partially torn quad, and Barno is coming back from a late-season knee injury, which will limit his availability in the spring as well.

"I feel confident about playing with the guys we have right now," Canales said. "DJ Wonnum, I don't want him to speak specifically about his injury and all that stuff, but he's rehabbing. But from his play on film, this is a starting-caliber outside linebacker with the pass rush. He's versatile. I'm really excited about him.

"I feel like we have a good group of guys. Would you love to have somebody on the other side that, you know, scares the daylights out of people? I think there's a factor that you can really make it an elite pass-rush group. I wouldn't say we're there right now, but I think that that would really put us into a situation you felt great about the outside, but I feel confident about the guys you have right now."

The Carolina Panthers were busy in free agency this week, signing multiple players on both sides of the ball. The first wave arrived on Thursday and Friday, getting a tour of Bank of America Stadium, meeting coaches, teammates and taking in their new home.