Why protecting the QB is an even bigger priority for Carolina Panthers than QB

The poor performance this season by the Carolina Panthers' offensive line made it hard to fully evaluate quarterbacks Sam Darnold (14) and Cam Newton. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers were preparing for Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season when then-general manager Dave Gettleman offered insight into the key to building a successful team: If you don’t have big men, you can’t compete.

“Tom Coughlin taught me a great thing,’’ Gettleman said of the former New York Giants coach, who won two Super Bowls as a head coach and one as an assistant. “Big men allow you to compete."

That’s the approach Panthers coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer are taking into the offseason. While hiring an offensive coordinator -- along with three other position coaches -- and fixing the quarterback position will get the most attention, finding big, talented linemen will be the key to future success.

“We’re not going to be blind to the defense,’’ Fitterer said after the Panthers (5-12) had their fourth straight losing season. “We’re not going to be blind to the quarterback position.

“But we absolutely know we have to fix the offensive line. We can’t have all this leakage. We need to build this the right way.’’

Rhule, who, like Gettleman, is a disciple of Coughlin, agreed.

“Until we control the line of scrimmage, it will be hard to win,’’ he said.

A look at this season's playoff teams through ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats supports that.

Led by the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, seven of the top eight teams in pressure allowed by the offensive line made the playoffs this season. Five of the top seven and nine of the top 12 teams in sack percentage allowed made the postseason.

The Panthers ranked 30th in pressure allowed and 25th in sack percentage allowed.

Also, four of the top five teams in pass block win rate and four of the top six in run block win rate made the postseason. The Panther ranked 29th and 26th, respectively.

“At the end of the day we’re the 30th-ranked offense in the National Football League with the second-ranked defense in a league in time when you have to score points,’’ Rhule said. “We know what we need to do to win.’’

Rebuilding the offensive line is easier said than done.

When Gettleman was named the general manager of the Giants late in the 2017 season, he said, “We’ve got to fix the O-line, let’s be honest. I told you at the top, big men allow you to compete, and that’s what we’ve got to fix.’’

Although Gettleman successfully fixed the Panthers' O-line in 2015 (more on that below), he recently retired without getting it done for the Giants, who ranked 31st in total offense the past two seasons and went 19-48 during Gettleman’s tenure.

So what’s Carolina’s path to fixing the line? Let’s take a closer look:

Existing talent

Gettleman liked the interior combination of center Ryan Kalil, left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Trai Turner he had in 2014. So, in 2015, he focused on the tackles, signing Michael Oher in free agency to play the left side and giving Mike Remmers a shot at right tackle.

Quarterback Cam Newton went from being sacked 2.7 times a game in 2014 to 2.2 in 2015, and the team went from seventh to second in rushing yards per game during a 15-1 regular season in which the team led the NFL in scoring.

Fitterer’s job won’t be quite so easy.

Only right tackle Taylor Moton and center Pat Elflein appear dependable. Moton ranked 40th among tackles in pass blocking with a grade of 87.2. Elflein struggled at guard with a 65.9 rating, but jumped to 90.4 at center, according to ESPN metrics. Rookie Brady Christensen showed some promise starting the final three games at left tackle, but he is likely a better fit at guard. Cameron Erving, signed last season to play left tackle, would be solid depth but lacks the consistency to start.

So that leaves a left tackle, a starting guard and depth to add.

Free agency

Two things here. While there are some attractive options, such as the New Orleans SaintsTerron Armstead and Kansas City Chiefs' Orlando Brown Jr., they likely will be re-signed before free agency begins. If they aren’t, the price tag could be an issue; the top 10 left tackles currently make $14.9-$23.1 million per year.

The Panthers have several of their own free agents – cornerback Donte Jackson, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, linebacker Haason Reddick and linebacker Frankie Luvu – to consider re-signing and too many needs to spend so much on one position.

NFL Draft

Carolina has the sixth pick. Alabama OT Evan Neal, Mississippi State OT Charles Gross or N.C. State OT/G Ikem Ekwonu would be a nice fit there without being a reach.

There will be those who argue a quarterback should be taken here, but that likely would be a reach, based on the current ranking of players.

Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett could be the most intriguing, since Rhule offered him a scholarship when he was coaching at Temple. Pickett committed to Temple but changed to Pittsburgh his senior year of high school.

If the Panthers can’t get a quarterback in free agency or through a trade, they likely would look in a lower round and have that player groom behind Sam Darnold – and possibly Newton. Fitterer didn’t rule out a return for Newton. He and Darnold were hard to evaluate with such a poor line.

Offensive coordinator

Rhule wants to build his offense around play-action and the run game.

Former offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who was fired in early December, relied too much on drop backs with a spread formation that put stress on the O-line. So Rhule needs to find the right coordinator to fit what he wants to do.

The known candidates so far are former Washington Football Team coach Jay Gruden, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, Indianapolis Colts wide receivers coach and former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh, Houston Texans passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell and Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, the former coach of the Texans.

Whoever gets the job will need big bodies up front to succeed.