- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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For three years he's had a Pro Bowl player protecting his blind side -- the reason left tackles are such a high-priced commodity. Now he blindly awaits who that player will be.
Unless somebody unexpectedly steps up, the Panthers don't have that player on their roster. That means Newton will be relying on somebody acquired in free agency or through the draft.
Here's a breakdown of the possibilities:
Existing players: Not a lot of great options when you consider this player has to protect the franchise quarterback. Right tackle Byron Bell possibly could switch sides, but he's shaky at best. Maybe this will help explain: Pro Football Focus gave Gross a rating of 33.5 this past season; Bell got a minus-2.8. It wouldn't surprise if Bell is replaced on the right side. Free agent Bruce Campbell spent some time at left tackle, but that didn't really work out. Nate Chandler moved from the defensive line to tackle a few years ago, and finished this past season as the starting right guard due to a rash of injuries. He played well, too. It might be asking too much for him to move to tackle, although Carolina once turned tight end Matt Campbell into a pretty good left tackle during the 1990s after a lot of trips to Krispy Kreme to bulk up.
Free agency: The big question here is how much the Panthers want to spend. A top-flight left tackle is expensive, and they have a lot of other needs to fill with 21 unrestricted free agents. In all likelihood, they'll look for an up-and-comer they can get for a reasonable price regardless of what they do in the draft. It's really a pretty good year with quite a few good tackles about to hit the market in Baltimore's Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe, Kansas City's Branden Albert, St. Louis' Austin Howard, Cincinnati's Anthony Collins and Oakland's Jared Veldheer. Albert you can probably forget about based on his last contract.
The draft: The good news is this is one of the deepest drafts at tackle in years. Some might argue you can get help in the middle rounds. The bad news is you probably can't get a potentially sure-fire starter outside the first round, and the top three -- Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews -- should be gone when Carolina drafts at No. 28. They are by far the cream of the crop. That leaves candidates such as Virginia's Morgan Moses, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, North Carolina's James Hurst, Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James and Ohio State's Jack Mewhort as possibilities.
The dilemma: There are two. First, losing Gross means the Panthers almost have to find a way financially to keep defensive end Greg Hardy, whether it's with a long-term deal or the franchise tag. I believe they will. They can't afford to start over without cornerstones on the offensive and defensive line and hope to improve. Second, they still have a big need at wide receiver, particularly with Steve Smith's future somewhat up in the air. The good news is the wide receiver draft crop is just as deep if not deeper than the offensive line, so a potential starter could be had in the second round.