A look at why Panthers are starting four undrafted offensive linemen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints will start five drafted players on their offensive line in Thursday night's NFC South showdown against the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers will start one.

In terms of experience, the Saints will have 41 combined years up front. The Panthers will have one undrafted rookie making his second start and four other players with less than 20 full years combined.

It begs the question: Should the Panthers have done more during the offseason to strengthen their line, particularly at tackle?

"No," coach Ron Rivera said. "We felt good coming out of camp, and I thought it showed early on. If we can get everybody healthy and get everybody back, we have a chance."

To be fair, the Panthers (3-4-1) didn’t plan to have four undrafted players starting on the line. Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick in 2012, was the starting left guard before a calf injury sidelined him three weeks ago.

Right guard Trai Turner was drafted in the third round this year.

Carolina also didn’t plan to be this inexperienced. Garry Williams, who had 20 starts since coming to Carolina in 2009, was set to be a backup guard and tackle until he was placed on injured reserve with a back injury.

So injuries have taken a toll. Undrafted rookie David Foucault of Canada, in an idea world, would be on the practice squad. Because the Panthers wanted to protect him from being picked up by another team he was kept on the 53-man roster.

He played 30 snaps in Sunday’s 13-9 loss to Seattle because of injuries.

And it could be worse against the Saints if left tackle Byron Bell (knee, elbow) can’t play. Despite being undrafted out of New Mexico in 2011, he has the second-most starts (48) on the line behind Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.

But the Panthers did make the conscious decision to go with undrafted players Bell and Nate Chandler at the two tackle positions after making a run at Cincinnati’s Anthony Collins, who signed with Tampa Bay.

They also made the choice to pick wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round instead of a tackle. It’s hard to debate that since Benjamin, with 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns, is a rookie of the year candidate.

And when you look at the tackles available after the top four went in the first 19 picks, none have done anything to warrant being selected in the first round.

"We’ve got guys that can come in and play winning football," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "The hardest thing about it is just getting those guys the quality reps during the course of the week.

"We like the guys we have now. You would like for those guys to have more experience than they have."

The good news is this group hasn’t cost Carolina much. The Panthers rank 27th in the league in offensive line spending. The Jets, Redskins and Falcons rank Nos. 3-5 and they have a combined record of 6-18. The Saints at 3-4 rank eighth.

Is what Carolina has good enough to play winning football?

"It has been good enough to win," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It’s up to people like myself to make things right. There’s been holes to have room to run through, there’s been time to throw the football and it has been opportunities for us to make big plays."

Getting running back DeAngelo Williams back after missing the past four games with an ankle injury should help. He had 106 yards on 25 carries in slightly over five quarters when the line was healthy.

While Newton has been sacked eight times in the last four games, the Panthers are a respectable 15th in the league in sacks allowed per play.

"We have a great group of guys," Chandler said. "Whatever anyone else says really, there’s no place for it to be in our heads. We know we’re a good group, and that’s what we’re going to prove."