NFC North: Jordan Gross

Every now and then during offseason workouts, Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil will get a text from recently retired left tackle Jordan Gross. The message usually is accompanied with a picture from the golf course, the lake or some other fun activity.

"Typical Gross,"Kalil said last week.

What's not typical for Kalil is being in offseason workouts without Gross, wide receiver Steve Smith and others that no longer are a part of the Carolina roster. They have either retired, like Gross, were released, like Smith, or were not re-signed.

[+] EnlargeKalil
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kalil said he likes the competition that is occurring in OTAs.
As Kalil said, it's strange. It's also accepted.

Parents often go through a period of mourning, otherwise known as empty nest syndrome, when children leave home. Sports fans go through a similar grieving period when star players leave for other teams or retire.

Players don't have that luxury. To spend time debating or agonizing over the loss of a teammate, even if that teammate is a good friend like Gross and Kalil were, is time not spent getting better.

"That's just how it is,"Kalil said. "A lot of players, we joke that if you can cut Peyton Manning you can cut any of us. And it's true. It's part of the business and I don't envy those decisions that they have to make upstairs."

But while it feels strange for Kalil and others to see a room full of new faces during organized team activities, they are focused on moving forward. They are trying to do what it takes to assure the group is in position to become the first to record consecutive winning seasons in team history.

A big part of that is competition. The changes, for better or worse, have created more competition than Kalil can remember in any of his seven seasons at Carolina.

It's something Kalil has embraced and believes will be "really healthy for this team.''

Instead of the complacency that sometimes comes from having veterans back in key positions, the release of a 13-year player like Smith sends the message that no player's future is safe.

"Everybody's trying to make a good impression with coaches, with some of the established guys, and that's something I haven't felt around here in a while that I think is real exciting for this team,"Kalil said.

Kalil saw this initially in the weight room with players "sizing themselves up with other guys and established guys.''

There's not a sense of panic like many fans have expressed since Smith was cut and the team's next three wide receivers were allowed to sign elsewhere.

There's a sense of opportunity for others to step forward. The left tackle position, for example, has created an opportunity for right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler to compete for one of the more high profile jobs on the team.

"He's been busting his butt this offseason," Kalil said of Chandler. "You can tell he's put on some weight just to prepare for that.''

Kalil is excited about the prospects along the line, including the possibility of drafting a tackle with the 28th pick. He also made a plea for the team to re-sign left guard Travelle Wharton, who is contemplating retirement if Carolina's doesn't make an offer.

"I'd be more excited if we had Travelle coming back," Kalil admitted. "I'd feel good about having a young guy next to an older guy like that.

"So if you can write, 'Travelle, Ryan wants to know.' I text him, 'One more year,' and he won't respond back to me. So if you can let him know that I'm waiting for him to return my calls.''

But even Wharton's situation isn't something Kalil wastes a lot of time focusing on. He understands the sense of urgency to begin moving forward with the players on the roster instead of worrying about those that aren't.

So do other veterans such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who like Kalil realizes the unfortunate part of the business is you lose friends who are teammates.

"But everyone realizes it's a business and that's how it works,"he said.

Gross understood that when he was a player. But that doesn't keep him from giving Kalil and others a hard time when they're in OTAs and he's having a good time.

Typical Gross.
When we last checked in with USC left tackle Matt Kalil, he had shown up at the NFL scouting combine at a svelte 306 pounds spread out over his 6-foot-7 frame. He discussed plans to "bulk up" to around 310 pounds but made clear he was never going to be one of the hulking 330-pound monsters many of us associate with elite left tackles.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kalil
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIMatt Kalil is working on his build by overhauling his daily caloric intake to up to 6,500 calories.
I caught up with Kalil over the weekend as part of his work with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, where he spent some time setting future conditioning goals and overhauling his nutrition plan. He said he weighed in at 310 or 311 pounds at all four pre-draft visits he made over the past few months, including one with the Minnesota Vikings, and said he might approach 315 pounds by the time the 2012 NFL regular season begins.

But to give you an idea of the type of metabolism Kalil has, nutritionists have designed a daily 6,500-calorie diet to maintain whatever weight he lands on throughout the season. For context, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends 2,000 calories per day for many age groups, but athletes typically need more and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has consumed 12,000 during some training activities.

"I probably don't look like I weigh 310 pounds because I'm so tall," Kalil said. "But how much you weigh is overrated sometimes. Obviously you can't be 268 pounds and block a 300-pound defensive end, but I don't think [the difference between 310 and 330] is going to mean as much in my situation. I believe it's more about how you work on your trade and improving as a player, which I'm trying to do every day.

"You look at Joe Thomas [of the Cleveland Browns] and he's 311, 312 pounds. Jordan Gross [of the Carolina Panthers] is 303 or 305 pounds. In this line of work, it's about how strong you are and how good your technique is as much as how much you weigh."

Indeed, at 306 pounds during the combine, Kalil put together arguably the most impressive workouts of any offensive lineman. As we noted in February, most of his speed work qualified as the second-best scores at the combine.

Why are we spending so much time discussing Kalil's seemingly thin frame? Because there really isn't much else to pick at him about, a reflection of how universally he's considered the best non-quarterback prospect in the draft. It's also why almost no one has bought assertions from Vikings general manager Rick Spielman that a left tackle might be a lower priority than offensive playmakers or even cornerbacks at the top of the draft.

Based on what I can tell, it would stun the NFL from top to bottom if the Vikings draft someone other than Kalil at No. 3, regardless of the skills of Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.

A trade market could materialize for those who want assurance they can draft Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and Kalil could be off the board if they Vikings move down far enough. Otherwise, Kalil and the Vikings appear to be in the final stages of engagement before the big ceremony April 26. Kalil has visited the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills as well, and he is taking what amounts to a forced neutrality on his landing spot.

"Crazier things have happened I guess," he said. "You can never really expect where you're going to go, and it's probably the wrong mindset to be set on a certain team. So I'm open-minded and working on staying in my routine until the draft starts."

Kalil has one more week of routine before leaving for New York City and draft festivities. And that gives us 11 more days of noise before what sure seems inevitable finally happens.

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