Carolina Panthers

Panthers look for bigger linemen

CHARLOTTE -- Once upon a time, Mike Wahle and Justin Hartwig were just the kind of offensive linemen the Panthers always wanted.

With their releases, however, the Panthers are moving back to the kind they always needed.

Their departures helped eliminate a bit of an identity crisis up front, as the Panthers' personnel never seemed to match their plan in recent years. A mix of finesse guys and bigger, more physical blockers, there never appeared to be a consistent profile to their line as a whole. They're at least moving in that direction now, with more moves coming.

Both Wahle and Hartwig failed to play up to their previous standards last season, and the reason was mostly physical. With Wahle, the natural toll of age and injuries had sapped his power, while Hartwig never recovered from a groin surgery which took away muscle from his legs.

The result, as was seen too often last year, was a failure to get any push from the middle of the offensive line. That the Panthers still ranked 14th in the league in rushing was a testament to will rather than skill, a consistent (or stubborn) desire to do something they weren't very effective at.

By replacing Wahle and Hartwig with Travelle Wharton and Ryan Kalil, the Panthers hope to get back to their roots as a stronger team up the middle. And while moving Jordan Gross to left tackle might not be the perfect scenario (and might not be necessary depending on which tackle they take in the draft), there's at least some evidence it's worked before. It was behind the Gross-Wharton left side of the line in 2004 that running back Nick Goings looked like Jim Brown for a month and a half.

And while it's gathered perhaps the least attention of any of their signings, bringing in Keydrick Vincent -- the presumptive favorite to be the right guard -- at least shows which direction they want to go. The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Vincent's simply a bigger-legged guy than the ones who just left, and has experience starting on good lines in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

"If you look at the successful offensive lines, the way the game's evolved, offensive linemen are getting bigger and bigger," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "Those guys that go 330, 340 (pounds) are easier to find now. Given what we've said about being more physical, about running the ball, about setting the tempo that way, obviously the bigger guys on the offensive line help toward that goal.

"Still, it's not how big you are, it's how physical you play."

• TOUGHER TO TARGET T: While the Panthers will look for a tackle with their first-round pick seems apparent, getting one got tougher last week.

When Baltimore fixture Jonathan Ogden told the team to plan as if he were retiring, it added another team to the list of tackle-needy, a list which includes several teams picking ahead of the Panthers.

Starting with St. Louis in the second spot, there are a handful of teams with realistic needs for one of the top three tackles (Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Chris Williams). Kansas City (fifth), New England (seventh), the Ravens (eighth) and Denver (12th) could all make a reasonable case for taking one of the top blockers.

• EXTRA POINTS: The Panthers' offseason conditioning program starts Monday. Participation's going to be interesting, since there are so many new guys or new roles. This becomes a time for bonding as much as lifting weights, which will be important in an offseason of subtle but significant turnover. ...

The free agent market has slowed considerably, but the Panthers are still tracking a number of the free agents they've made contact with. For example, the agent for former Oakland left tackle Barry Sims said he's still talking to the Panthers and three other teams, since they're not all going to be able to draft the tackle they need. Sims (109 career starts at left tackle) would be a good stop-gap if they don't land one in the first round and need insurance to cover a later pick.