CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The fifth installment of an 11-part analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster involves what was best described this past season by coach Ron Rivera as “position catastrophe.’’
The description is adequate since only one of five players finished in the same spot they began the season because of injuries.
Next up: Offensive line.
2016 grade: C-minus. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come when left tackle Michael Oher was ruled out of the fourth game with a concussion two days before the Panthers faced Atlanta. No one knew Oher had a concussion prior to that. Oher never returned, eventually going on injured reserve. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and backup Gino Gradkowski also finished the season on IR. That Carolina still finished 10th in the NFL in rushing kept this from being a lower grade, but make no mistake that injuries to the line were a big reason for Carolina’s 6-10 record.
Under contract (2017 salary-cap number): C Ryan Kalil ($8,329,000), T Michael Oher ($ 5,500,000), C Gino Gradkowski ($1,050,000), G Trai Turner ($824,950), T Daryl Williams ($754,280), G David Yankey ($615,000), T Dan France ($540,000).
The good: As mentioned, the Panthers still finished 10th in the NFL in rushing with 113.4 yards a game and Jonathan Stewart finished 19th in rushing with 824 yards despite missing three games. Left guard Andrew Norwell, the only player that finished the season where he began, received the 11th-best overall grade (85.7) by a guard from Pro Football Focus. Tackle Daryl Williams got valuable experience on the right side after Mike Remmers moved to the left side, although he didn’t play so well that he’s guaranteed the position in 2017. Guard Trai Turner showed his versatility by moving from right guard to right tackle when Williams was out with an injury, but didn’t excel at either. OK, so there’s not a lot of real good here.
The bad: Where to begin? General manager Dave Gettleman says he can’t count on Oher, who missed the final 13 games, being ready for this season. Remmers, who replaced Oher, will be a free agent and there’s not a huge argument to bring him back. He gave up nine sacks and 49 total quarterback pressures, according to PFF. And this is in addition to being penalized 15 times. Kalil was limited to eight games by a shoulder injury that ultimately landed him on injured reserve and required surgery. He’s also 31. Turner, despite his versatility, gave up 19 more quarterback pressures than a year ago, but his time at tackle had something to do with that. Indeed, position catastrophe.
The draft: It’s not a great year for tackles with Alabama’s Cam Robinson rated No. 1 at the position, but he’s likely not nearly good enough to be used with Carolina’s No. 8 pick. The only other two tackles at this point worthy of a first-round grade appear to be Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramcyzk, but they too at this point would be a reach at No. 8 if Gettleman continues with his best-player available philosophy. LSU’s Ethan Pocic would be an intriguing pick as a future replacement for Kalil at center, but only if Carolina trades down or could get him in the second around.
Final thought: Oher’s status makes this complicated. It also makes it almost mandatory that Carolina look for a more permanent solution at left tackle in free agency with no immediate fix in the draft. One option might be Minnesota’s Matt Kalil, Ryan’s brother. Matt is 27 and could come at a reasonable price after spending most of this past season on injured reserve with a hip injury. The opportunity to play with his brother also might be tempting. Detroit’s Riley Reiff or William Beatty of the New York Giants could be options if not re-signed. It seems like a risk to think Remmers can be the solution if Oher doesn’t return. He appears better suited for the right side, but if the staff is convinced Williams can be a long-term starter there, spending much on Remmers doesn’t make sense. The sooner the Panthers know what’s going to happen with Oher the easier -- or more complicated -- their decisions get here.