This is the second in a series of position-by-position looks at the Panthers as they prepare for the first day of training camp practice on July 29.
We started with the running backs in part one, so it seems right to continue with the good news first, before we get deeper into the problem spots. Because it's still summer and we're feeling charitable, that's why.
Honestly, there's a reasonable chicken-egg discussion as to whether the Carolina Panthers success running the ball is more a function of their backs or offensive line.
The Panthers have two Pro Bowlers up front already, another guy who might be better than the both of them, and a fourth who has been criminally underrated.
That's not a bad place to start, for a team with so many questions elsewhere.
LT Jordan Gross eased into the spring practices, and should be ready for the start of camp after last year's grisly broken leg. His absence left C Ryan Kalil as the Panthers only lineman in the Pro Bowl, which could be the last time you say that for a few years.
Those two display the kind of under-the-radar excellence that's easy to overlook. Last year's absence was Gross's first with an extended injury (other than a one-gamer because of a concussion the year before), and he's been as solid as dependable.
Both Gross and Kalil are smart and technique-strong, rarely taking false steps. As Kalil grows more comfortable calling out protections (there were a few hiccups early), he could make himself a fixture in Hawaii (or Miami or wherever they decide to play the Pro Bowl).
RT Jeff Otah, provided he's well, should be the Panthers next fixture in the all-star game. He's simply a mammoth presence in the run game, still learning to play but already dominant. It's fair to wonder if he'll stay on the field, as he's had to deal with minor knee and ankle injuries each of his two seasons. But from the looks of things, Otah's in better shape than before, and that's a good omen.
LG Travelle Wharton's the quiet one of the bunch, but deserves more attention. He's an athletic blocker with dancing-bear feet, who helps create a lot of cut-back lanes for the backs. He's also their backup left tackle, filling in more than capably when Gross went down last year.
Past those four -- and that's a pretty good beginning -- the Panthers are trusting some young players to take on bigger roles this year.
Three of them will compete for the starting RG job vacated when veteran Keydrick Vincent was allowed to walk out the door (en route to Tampa Bay).
While Mackenzy Bernadeau and Geoff Schwartz got chances to start last year, it might help the team most if 2009 fifth-rounder Duke Robinson would win the job outright. He's bigger and stronger than both, and paired with Otah would give them a block-out-the-sun strong side to run behind.
Robinson's not nearly as polished as the other two (as evidenced by all the -- ahem -- attention he gets from line coach Dave Magazu). But he does possess a higher ceiling than the other two from a physical standpoint, and it's worth using camp to see if he can reach it.
That's not to say the Panthers would struggle with either of the other two. In fact, both Bernadeau and Schwartz looked good in replacement work as starters last year. Bernadeau's more nimble (he's like Wharton's little brother), and is capable of playing any of the three inside positions. Schwartz is more of a mauler, able to play right tackle but perhaps better suited inside. In a sense, those two have become the Geoff Hangartner and Jeremy Bridges for future teams, after so much fretting last year as to whether they were ready for those roles.
That's an impressive first eight, but the Panthers have a few more guys in the pipeline as well.
Former undrafted rookie Garry Williams has a little Wharton in him. He spent the year watching, and appears to have improved his conditioning this offseason. His potential as a pass-blocker is valid, but in a perfect world, he'd never see the field. They also have a better-than-average 10th man in Rob Petitti, a former 16-game starter for Dallas who fought his way through injuries and the UFL before his late-season call-up.
Anyone else will have to fight for a practice squad job, though there are a few who could hang around.
C.J. Davis is getting a look in the middle, a good chance for him since there's nothing behind Kalil if Bernadeau starts. He barely practiced in camp last year as an undrafted rookie, but they kept him around on IR because he's got a little something about him. They brought former Wake Forest and Indianapolis draft pick Steve Justice into camp, but he looks overmatched even standing across from the Panthers makeshift D-line. Among this year's undrafteds, G Kurt Gregory might have the most promise.
All in all, it's a strong group to pick from, better than they've had in years. Vincent was a very good run-blocker, but he struggled in pass protection, and replacing him with any of the young guys should allow them to continue on with their sterling work.
— Darin Gantt