Chandler, Panthers have great expectations

Nate Chandler, a third-year player, is competing for the Panthers' starting left tackle position. AP Photo/Nell Redmond

Nate Chandler has a chance to be one of the feel-good stories of the upcoming NFL season.

Or a bust.

If he's the former, the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers have a chance to follow one feel-good season with another.

Let me explain. Left tackle is one of the most important positions on an NFL roster because that player protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side. Elite left tackles earn around $10 million a year. They are top targets in the draft and free agency.

Teams don't typically take chances there.

Carolina did.

Meet Chandler.

An undrafted defensive lineman out of UCLA in 2012, he's trying to defy the odds. Once considered a dark horse to replace retired left tackle Jordan Gross, Chandler is at least even money to win the job based on offseason workouts.

Chandler, 25, isn't lacking for confidence. "My goal is to be a starting offensive tackle and win the Super Bowl and go down fighting and prove everybody wrong," he said.

If he loses his left tackle competition with Byron Bell, Chandler almost assuredly will start on the right side.

Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater has a strong opinion on where Chandler should play.

"There's no doubt in my mind he's a top left tackle," said Slater, who spent time working with Chandler over the past two summers.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder first sought out Slater last year, after Carolina moved Chandler to the offensive line in an effort to keep him on the roster. Chandler -- a former UCLA teammate of Slater's son Matthew, who is now with the New England Patriots -- had heard the elder Slater trained NFL prospects in the Los Angeles area.

So he spent a week with Slater, making an immediate impression with his work ethic and determination. He made a bigger impression after returning this summer, following a season in which he started six games at right guard and two at right tackle.

"The thing that many underestimate is the tenacity of this individual," said Slater, the offensive line coach at Azusa Pacific University.

Slater, if you're too young to remember, spent 20 years playing tackle for the Rams (1976–95). He was named to seven Pro Bowls and blocked for seven different 1,000-yard rushers. So he knows a thing or two about the offensive line -- and he is impressed with Chandler's ability to learn the nuances of the position.

"He superseded things that were meat and potatoes and went straight to some of the cutting-edge things it takes to be a dominant football player," Slater said.

The Panthers like what they've seen as well. Coach Ron Rivera reiterated throughout offseason workouts that the left tackle job remains up for grabs between Bell and Chandler.

At the end of a June minicamp, Carolina signed Chandler to a three-year extension worth $5.12 million. That will be a bargain if he starts at either tackle spot.

"The kid wants it," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "He's completely bought in [to playing offensive line] and he's talented enough to get it done."

The Panthers saw the need to move Chandler after selecting defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft. Too many people and not enough vacant spots.

So with a little prodding from offensive line coach John Matsko, who'd already noticed something in Chandler that he liked, Rivera made the switch.

"I'm telling you right now, it's hard for me to imagine there is anybody out there more physically gifted to play -- you name the position [on the line] -- than this young man," said Slater, who raved about Chandler's quickness.

Chandler, because of his athletic ability, is more like Gross than Bell. That he has some of that nasty streak that comes from being a former defensive lineman doesn't hurt either.

"If you're going to replace a guy like Jordan Gross, you've got to replace him with a guy who at the very least is on par with him athletically," Slater said. "He's got to have that comfortable athleticism to deal with the animals that are playing [opposite him]."

Chandler won't face many opponents better than teammates Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the defensive ends he'll square off against in practice.

He can benefit the way Slater did practicing against Rams teammates Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer and Kevin Greene.

"I told Nate to relish and cherish the relationship with those guys and learn from them as they compete, because they will make him better," Slater said.

Slater has no doubt Chandler will continue to improve.

"He's mentally equipped to solve problems, and that's what you have to do to play offensive tackle in this league," Slater said. "He's going to be a good offensive lineman in the National Football League for a very long time."

The only thing better than a feel-good story is a long-term one.