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What comes after ‘disaster?’ For reworked Panthers offensive line, hopefully stability

Panthers rookie OL Greg Little at minicamp

Carolina Panthers rookie offensive lineman Greg Little, a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft, talks on Day 2 of the team's rookie minicamp. He says he can't wait to put the pads on and show a "mean streak" some critics say he lacks.
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Carolina Panthers rookie offensive lineman Greg Little, a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft, talks on Day 2 of the team's rookie minicamp. He says he can't wait to put the pads on and show a "mean streak" some critics say he lacks.

Last season, in his first year as Carolina Panthers team owner, it didn’t take David Tepper long to highlight one of the team’s greatest problem areas:

“Listen, the offensive line looked like a disaster,” Tepper told reporters after the 2018 season. “You have to give (run game coordinator John) Matsko a lot of credit. It was as good as it possibly could be. So it was a good coaching job.”

Credit to Matsko, one of the league’s more revered offensive line coaches, but as for the offensive line... yikes. That’s not what you want to hear from anyone in a position of power. Tepper, of course, wasn’t the only one conscious of the offensive line’s struggles in 2018, and so general manager Marty Hurney prioritized improving the offensive line this offseason.

That began during free agency, when the team signed center Matt Paradis from Denver to replace the retired Ryan Kalil. Hurney also re-signed former Pro Bowl tackle Daryl Williams to a one-year deal. Both players are recovering from significant season-ending injuries: Williams injured his knee in Week 1, and Paradis fractured his fibula in November. Carolina also opted to release left tackle Matt Kalil, who missed the 2018 season with his own knee injury.

To fill the void at left tackle, Hurney and coach Ron Rivera turned to the NFL draft. The team traded up in the second round to select tackle Greg Little out of Mississippi, hoping he can develop into that unit’s final missing piece.

Going into training camp, how this new offensive line meshes will be of utmost importance. With Cam Newton recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, protecting the quarterback has arguably never been more important. Left guard Trai Turner and right tackle Taylor Moton both return as starters, but beyond that, how three new players fit in will be worth monitoring in Spartanburg.

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Carolina Panthers tackle Greg Little, right, stretches with his teammates during practice on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Breakout candidate

Little arrives in Charlotte as a better pass protector than run blocker, but that won’t diminish expectations for the rookie. Moton is able to play on the left side if necessary, but Little has the raw physical tools to develop into a positive at left tackle — with Matsko’s help, of course.

To be decided in camp

If Daryl Williams can slide to left guard. Re-signing him in free agency was something of a surprise, but a one year “prove-it” deal may end up being in the best interest of all parties. If Williams’ knee holds up, we could be talking about him as Hurney’s shrewdest move of the summer.

Underdog to watch

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Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis (61) has agreed to terms with the Carolina Panthers, according to a league source. David Zalubowski AP

Underdog might not be the right word considering Paradis was one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated centers for the 2018 season, but recovering from a broken fibula is no easy ask. Ryan Kalil was the linchpin of this offensive line for so many years, and Paradis has big shoes to fill there in addition to his own rehab.

Also keep an eye on...

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Guard Greg Van Roten was the only Panthers player to play all of Carolina’s offensive snaps in 2018. Paul Sancya AP

Lost in the shuffle of offensive linemen? Last year’s starting left guard, Greg Van Roten. He was the only person to play 100 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps in 2018, and yet he’s seemingly become a forgotten man this spring. He could slot back into the starting group if Williams struggles, but at worst, he’s a valuable depth piece across the line.

Three bold predictions

Carolina’s expected starting unit — Little at left tackle, Williams at left guard, Paradis at center, Turner at right guard, and Moton at right tackle — doesn’t start all 16 games together.

Similar to last year, when the team signed Chris Clark in September and later traded for Marshall Newhouse, bank on at least one in-season veteran acquisition for depth or injury purposes.

Moton is this season’s Iron Man, playing 100 percent of the offensive snaps.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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