MOBILE, Ala. — Sooner rather than later, the Carolina Panthers will have to find a capable left tackle to replace Jordan Gross.
Whether Gross, whose contract is expiring after his just-finished 11th season, retires or returns in 2014, the Panthers could be looking for a left tackle in the first round of May’s draft.
They might not find that this week at the Senior Bowl, where the rosters are ripe with second-day tackles and work-in-progress linemen but lack an instant starter who can protect a franchise quarterback’s blind side.
The best left tackle playing in the Senior Bowl might not even play tackle in the NFL, and the player in Mobile who most looks like an NFL left tackle struggled to win the right tackle job at Miami.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has no cause for concern yet. If he needs a left tackle for next season, either as a starter or an understudy to Gross, he has more than three months to find one.
“This is my first snapshot, very honestly,” Gettleman said Tuesday. “It’s been a year cycle and I remember when I got in the stands yesterday, I said, ‘You know what? This is my first look.’ I didn’t study college guys in the fall; I just focused on us. This is my first snapshot. And we really have plenty of time.”
Notre Dame’s Zach Martin started all four years for the Irish and says he hasn’t missed a game since before high school. He was part of an Irish offensive line that allowed eight sacks in 2013, and he gave up none. Martin allowed one his junior year, when Notre Dame played for a BCS championship.
But several scouts have said Martin would be better suited at guard, and he’s played both positions this week. Martin measured 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, which is the same listed height and weight of Gross.
But Martin’s arms measured at 32 1/4 inches long, less than ideal for an NFL tackle. His shorter arms and smaller base can sometimes be an automatic deterrent at tackle.
“I think I can play tackle, and I think I can play it at a high level, but at the same time I’m a versatile player,” Martin said. “You’ve got to be a technician. You’ve got to study tape and know your opponent. There are other ways to get an advantage on your opponent and you have to find those.”
Miami’s Seantrel Henderson does not have a problem with his size. At 6-foot-7 and 331 pounds with an arm length of 34 1/4 inches, he has the look of a starting left tackle.
Henderson was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school, but he was suspended three times – at least twice for marijuana use, he admitted this week – in four years at Miami.
This week he says he’s trying to be as honest as he can with NFL teams during the interview process. At practice with the North team he’s been used mostly at right tackle and hasn’t held his blocks well when he flips to the left side.
Henderson said the expectations that have surrounded him since high school have created some unwanted pressure.
“Everybody wants you to play good or play the best you can, and I think some people think you’re supposed to be mistake-free, but you’re still a kid,” Henderson said. “I feel like there is a lot of pressure and expectations, but maturing over the years, that’s the best thing I’ve got going.”
Should the Panthers want a left tackle with the 28th overall pick, they could find Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio available.
At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, Kouandjio is projected by CBS Sports to be a first-round pick.
“When he first came to Alabama,” said Senior Bowl director Phil Savage, “I’d look at him through my binoculars and say, ‘God, there’s a pro left tackle.’ And my personal opinion with him this year is that he got off to a slow start. … But then in October and November, he really played well and began to look like the player that people expected.
“He’s a player who’s got to answer some questions during this pre-draft process, but he certainly has the ability to be a pro starting tackle in the league.”
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