CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Michael Oher smiled every time the word contract extension was mentioned. He wouldn’t say there have been discussions about one, but the smile made it clear Carolina is a team he wants to be with beyond this season. That the Panthers didn’t select a tackle in the draft suggests the organization might want Oher here long term.
Coach Ron Rivera’s face lit up at the mention of the player who many outside the organization felt was a huge risk last year when the Panthers signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blindside. The risk, as has been well documented by now, turned into a reward. If this were another movie about Oher’s life -- see "The Blindside" -- it would have another happy ending.
That’s why an extension makes sense.
“I want to be here," Oher said with a huge smile. “Love the organization. It’s such a great organization. You wish you could be a part of this type stuff your whole career."
So does that mean an extension is coming?
“I’m going into my last year, so we’ll see what happens," Oher said, continuing to smile.
Would he like that to happen?
“You want to be a part of this type of team, the coaches. Great coaches," Oher said. “They help the players, because they know everything. I believe in great coaches, and you want to be a part of it."
Oher’s career seemed to be going nowhere in February of 2015. He was released by the Tennessee Titans one year after being signed to a five-year, $20 million deal.
Pro Football Focus rated Oher as one of the worst tackles in the NFL in 2014, when he started 11 games on the right side before going on injured reserve with a toe injury.
Prior to that, Oher spent five seasons playing right and left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, who didn’t re-sign him after the 2013 season. PFF didn’t give Oher a favorable grade that year, either.
Oher did a solid job in pass protection this past season, which helped Newton throw a career-best 35 touchdown passes. But against the run, according to PFF, “no tackle came close to grading as badly as he did."
The Panthers don’t seem concerned. They believe reuniting Oher with offensive-line coach John Matsko has been positive. Oher had two of his best seasons under Matsko at Baltimore in 2009 and 2010.
Rivera is expecting even better things out of Oher this season.
“Oh, he’s so much more comfortable in what we’re doing and how we do it," he said. “He’s fit in very nicely with that group of guys. Players feed off of his energy and excitement."
The best evidence of how comfortable Rivera is with Oher is Carolina didn’t make any moves in the draft or free agency.
“It’s exciting to have him out here and watch him mix it up with the guys," Rivera said. “He’s been a big part of what we’ve done since he’s been here and he continues to be a big part for us."
Few have a better work ethic than Oher, usually one of the first players at the facility. He’s bought into Rivera’s post-Super Bowl speech that the best way to get back to the title game is to return to the little things that got you there the first time.
“Working out. Getting in shape. Starting over with the fundamentals like it’s Day 1," Oher said as he described his offseason. "... Starting from scratch and working our way back up."
The best way the Panthers can back up what they think of Oher is by extending his deal. Considering the top left tackles in the NFL are making between $12 million and $16.25 million, he’d likely come at a bargain.
Whether that is for an additional one, two or three years, Oher’s not fretting about it.
“These guys know what they’re doing," he said. “This organization builds great character, so whatever they feel [I deserve], I’ll be happy."