NFL Nation: Ryan Kalil



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Tolbert could be considered a secret weapon, although secrets are something you hide and there's really no hiding a 5-foot-9, 243-pound fullback whose body type has been compared to a bowling ball.

But when the Pro Bowl fullback is on the field, there's no doubting the Carolina Panthers are better.

The Panthers are 7-2 with Tolbert, 1-6-1 when he was on injured reserve with a fractured leg.

They also are better in the red zone as was evidenced on his 1-yard touchdown catch in Saturday's 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert, Cam Newton
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe Panthers' red-zone fortunes have pointed forward since getting fullback Mike Tolbert back from injury.
"He can do a lot of different things," center Ryan Kalil said. "He can catch the ball, he can run in there. When you don't block it perfectly he can still push and get another yard or two.

"He's a smart player, very versatile, given his body type. He's a big part of this offense, and we're a better offense when he's in there."

The Panthers (8-8-1) need Tolbert more than ever in Saturday's NFC divisional game against defending Super Bowl champion Seattle at CenturyLink Field -- particularly in the red zone.

Carolina scored two field goals on three trips inside the red zone in a 13-9 loss to Seattle on Oct. 26 while Tolbert was out. It has scored only one touchdown on six trips inside the red zone against the Seahawks in their last three meetings.

The last three matchups with the Seahawks have been defined by red zone inefficiency as much as they have defense. Seattle has scored one touchdown on nine trips inside Carolina's 20.

For the Panthers, it begins with negative plays, particularly in the running game. They've rushed 12 times for only three red zone yards in their three losses to Seattle, which came via scores of 16-13, 12-7 and 13-9.

Only five of Carolina's 114 rushing yards against Seattle in October came in the red zone.

Tolbert believes he can help.

"I can make a big difference," he said. "I'm not going to disclose what we have to do to make that happen."

With Tolbert out, the Panthers had to rely on tight ends to stay in the backfield and block. They kept at least one tight end in on six of 11 red zone plays in the first meeting.

The tight end isn't a threat to run, so that eliminates one threat. He often doesn't block as well in open space as Tolbert.

And when the tight end stays in to block, that takes away one of the team's primary weapons -- particularly if it's Pro Bowler Greg Olsen. The team's leading receiver had only one catch for 16 yards against Seattle in the first meeting.

"A big part of why we've lost to them in those defensive battles has been our red zone efficiency, settling for too many field goals," Olsen said. "That's got to be a point of emphasis for us this week.

"The opportunities could be limited for us at times. You've got to take advantage of those opportunities and score when you get close and give yourself some breathing room.”

Having Tolbert back can only help.

"There were things you looked at [on film] and enlightened yourself to and said, 'Oh, wow! OK, now things may be different,'" Rivera said. "We have a different opportunity."

That's because they have a secret weapon that really isn't a secret except when it comes to keeping secrets on how he might be used.

"I'm a college-educated man," Tolbert said after repeated tries of how he might be used in the red zone. "I'm smarter than that."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Right tackle Mike Remmers was engrossed in a conversation in the corner of the Carolina Panthers locker room with the player who shares the space next to his.

He doesn't remember if the topic was football or lines from movies, although he'd bet it was the latter based on previous such conversations.

R. Kalil
But no matter what happens in Saturday's NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals, the rest of this season or his journeyman NFL career, Remmers will remember the person who shared the conversation.

Throughout eight lineup changes on the offensive line due to injuries, throughout questions about whether this group was good enough to play winning football, one thing has remained constant.

Ryan Kalil.

The four-time Pro Bowl center has held things together when everything seemed to be falling apart. Remmers knows why.

"He's an absolutely amazing athlete," said Remmers, who didn't join the team until midseason and didn't become a starter until the 12th game. "He goes out there and picks up the energy with all the players. He's not only an amazing player, he's an amazing person.

"Everyone on the team, not just the offensive line, likes him. He's the nicest guy that brings it every single day."

Kalil is playing as well or better than at any point in a career that began in 2007 when he was a second-round pick out of Southern California. He has helped develop a pair of rookie tackles, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, to solidify the interior line around him.

That's made it easier for Remmers and left tackle Byron Bell to do their jobs.

"A lot falls on Kalil's plate," Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said. "That gets overlooked sometimes. He's in control of a lot of things up front. I'm sure if you ask him, things have gotten a lot easier since the guys around him have settled into being stable and guys not rotating in and out."

The same starting five has played the last five games. That means the communication that begins with Kalil has been less of an issue because there's now chemistry.

"Without Kalil in that stretch [of changes] it would have been tough," Olsen said. "If you're going to have one consistent guy, having a Pro Bowl center is a good place to start."

Kalil had to get outside of his comfort zone at times. Normally quiet despite being one of the funnier players on the team, he had to take on the leadership role that left tackle Jordan Gross and guard Travelle Wharton had before retiring.

"He's not a big rah-rah guy, but he leads because he's really smart," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "He communicates on the field and more so than anything else by his production."

The evolution of the Carolina line has made the entire offense more productive. The Panthers have averaged close to 200 yards rushing the past five games.

Keeping that pace against an Arizona defense that has given up more than 200 yards rushing in the last two games will be key. Keeping in check a front seven that sacked quarterback Cam Newton seven times last season also will be important.

It all begins with Kalil.

"He's an ultimate pro," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "So he knows how to do his job the right way and get guys to lead them without having to push them too much."

Kalil admits the leadership role has been an adjustment, but he's had good role models.

"The guys I always respond to are the guys that lead by example, so I just try to do my job the best every day," he said.

Early in the season, with Gross and Wharton gone, Kalil relied heavily on coach Ron Rivera as a sounding board.

"He didn't have that comfort companion," Rivera said. "He lost guys that he had been with. We had four veteran guys that he had starting beside him or worked with four years."

Lately, Kalil has spent more time talking to Remmers and his young guards. They've responded, which has been big during Carolina's four-game winning streak.

"It's really been neat to watch him direct that young group of men," Rivera said.

It's something Remmers never will forget.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In terms of the history for the Carolina Panthers, linebacker Thomas Davis is a relic.

He’s the only player on Carolina’s roster that remembers what it’s like to win a playoff game as a Panther.

“And we’ve got to change that," Davis said on Tuesday as he looked ahead to Saturday’s NFC wild-card playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium. “It’s not going to change by talking about it. We’ve got to go out and play like it.’’

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis and Luke Kuechly
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneLinebackers Thomas Davis (58) is the only player on Carolina's roster to win a playoff game as a Panther.
Davis thought that had changed in 2005 when the Panthers advanced to the NFC Championship before losing to Seattle. Then they went three seasons before returning to the playoffs, where Arizona sent them on a five-year postseason vacation.

So when odds-makers say the Panthers (7-8-1) should beat Arizona on Saturday, Davis refuses to take the bait. He remembers the pain from the way that 2008 season ended.

It was the divisional round of the playoffs. The Cardinals were without star wide receiver Anquan Bolden then like they are without starting quarterback Carson Palmer and possibly backup Drew Stanton now. They entered the playoffs with four losses in their last six games just like they do this one.

Final score: Cardinals 33, Panthers 13.

“It was tough to lose that game, especially to lose the way that we did,’’ Davis said. “They were a hurt team coming in. They didn’t have [wide receiver] Anquan Bolden. So you would think our game plan would reflect not having Anquan and double Larry Fitzgerald. That’s not something we did and we paid for it.’’

Fitzgerald had eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, with six catches for 161 yards and a touchdown coming in the first half as the Cardinals jumped to a 27-7 lead.

So don’t tell Davis Arizona (11-5) will be down because third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley likely will make his first playoff start and the Cardinals are limping into the playoffs against a Carolina team with a 7-8-1 record.

“At the end of the day we have to do a better job overall of executing,’’ Davis said. “The coaches have to, the offense has to, the defense has to. We went to Arizona last year and those guys came away with a victory. We felt we were the better team then and they still beat us (22-6).’’

Davis also remembers the sting from last year’s 23-10 playoff loss to San Francisco at home. The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 regular-season games before falling flat.

“I definitely believe what we went through last year is going to help this team,’’ Davis said. “We have a much different focus right now. The fact we get to play this wild card game it’s going to be a lot different for us. We have a lot of momentum right now and we’re just going to continue to ride that.’’

The Panthers had momentum in 2008, winning four of their last five games to win the NFC South with a 12-4 record. Arizona slipped into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

Only five players remain on the Carolina roster from that game. Besides Davis there is center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson, and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

“The biggest thing is the feeling of getting back in the playoffs again and knowing what it was like to be out that game and last year versus San Fran,’’ Kalil said. “The experience is just from that and that and carrying that feeling into the game and not wanting to feel that way [again].”

That the Panthers are back in the playoffs in consecutive seasons is a good starting point. They hadn’t done that before.

But players like Davis now want a win in the worst way. Had Johnson not stood up in front of the team and talked about how badly he wanted a playoff win after Sunday’s 34-3 victory over Atlanta, he would have.

“On a scale of 1-10 the desire to win?’’ Davis said. “Whatever number you put higher than 10, that’s the desire right now.’’

That Davis, 31, is on the back end of his career makes his sense of urgency even bigger.

“You want to take advantage of the opportunity you have right now,’’ Davis said. “Like we said before last year, 2008 was the last time we made the playoffs. If we have another drought like that I may never get to go to the playoffs again.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil still was wearing a towel from a post-game shower when he stopped in the corner of the locker room to console kicker Graham Gano.

[+] EnlargeGraham Gano
Chuck Burton/AP PhotoPanthers kicker Graham Gano went 1-for-3 on field goal attempts in a 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Sunday.
Kalil wanted to let Gano know he didn't blame him for missing a 46-yard field goal with 1:22 remaining in Sunday's 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. He said the offense should have played better earlier so the outcome wasn't riding on the kicker's right foot.

Kalil easily could have placed the blame on quarterback Cam Newton, but he didn't.

Newton was horrendous through more than three quarters, posting a 27.1 passer rating before throwing a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to get his final rating up to 82.3.

But as Kalil reminded, "offensively we came to the party a little too late."

The offense has been AWOL for most of a now five-game losing streak, scoring only 57 points. You're not going to win many games averaging 11.4 points a game.

Newton's 82.3 passer rating on Sunday was his best during that stretch. His average for the previous four games was 61.12.

"The answers are in the locker room," Newton said, reminding the Panthers get fullback Mike Tolbert and a few offensive linemen back from injuries when they next play on Nov. 30 at Minnesota. "We're not going to get any miraculous play or any miraculous break.

"It's time for guys to ... say it's time for us to do what we do. I'm talking about me more important. It's just time to do our thing. Nothing else can bother us. Nothing else can affect us. The time has come."

That, nor Kalil's apology, made Gano feel better. He insisted he should have converted the 46-yarder as well as the 63-yarder that was blocked as time expired.

He didn't make excuses, saying the snap and hold on the first kick that went wide left was good. He thought the second kick was hit clean enough to easily reach the net behind the crossbar.

"My teammates have my back," Gano said. "They have confidence in me. I have to pull through and make that kick. That's what it comes down to. No excuses.

"I can't wait for the next game. I hope it comes down to a field goal."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- David Foucault emerged from the shower room on Wednesday carrying a big stack of light blue towels that he delivers daily to the veteran offensive linemen.

"That's my job," the Carolina Panthers' undrafted rookie out of the University of Montreal said in his distinct French accent while sporting his usual big smile.

He'll add other duties this week. With starting left tackle Byron Bell ruled out with injuries to his knee and elbow, coach Ron Rivera is turning to the player known by most here as "the Canadian" to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side in Thursday night's game against the New Orleans Saints.

It's not a situation anyone imagined in May when Foucault -- whose name is pronounced Da-VEED foo-KOH -- made the roster after being invited to a rookie tryout.

[+] EnlargeDavid Foucault and Clay Matthews
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDavid Foucault, shown here against Clay Matthews, will make his first career start Thursday night.

It's not even a situation anyone imagined in training camp when Foucault, 25, was asked to stand up and sing the Canadian national anthem.

"I say like two words and everybody says, 'USA! USA!'" said Foucault, from LaSalle, Quebec.

They also booed, part of a prank organized by center Ryan Kalil.

But they'll all be cheering for the 6-foot-8, 305-pound offensive tackle who wears his long, blond hair in a ponytail. He'll take the field with first place in the NFC South on the line.

"It's going very fast for me," Foucault said. "I'm very stressful a little bit. When I came here for my first day, they put me on the practice squad, and in two hours, they put me on the roster, and after two games, I was on the field."

Now he's starting.

It indeed has been a steep learning curve for a player who is mastering the English language.

"He understands English fine," Kalil said. "Now, his speaking is a little different. If he had to make calls for us, we might be in a little trouble."

Some might suggest the Panthers (3-4-1) are in trouble because they're starting a player who played 11 snaps in Carolina's first six games. Some might also suggest Newton is in trouble.

But the Panthers had no other option. Right tackle Nate Chandler has a groin injury, so moving him would have been risky. Left guard Amini Silatolu would have moved to tackle, but he's out again with a calf injury.

Garry Williams, who began the season as the backup at both tackles, is on injured reserve with a back injury.

"It's the situation we're in," Rivera said. "It's not like we said, 'Hey, you know what? When we get to Week 9, why don't we put the kid out there at left tackle?'"

Don't get Rivera wrong. He likes Foucault. One of the reasons the Panthers kept him on the 53-man roster instead of the practice squad was they feared another team would sign him.

They just never imagined they would need him -- at least as a starter -- in a game this big.

"The three games that he's had an opportunity to play in, you get excited, you get intrigued," Rivera said of Foucault, who played 30 snaps last Sunday against Seattle, 29 the previous week against Green Bay and 11 in Week 4 at Baltimore. "It'll be fun to see how he does."

Foucault is embracing the moment. He did an interview with a Canadian media outlet on Tuesday. His family is set to watch Thursday's game on TV.

What's unique about this game is players get to introduce themselves on the broadcast. Players typically say their name and school.

Foucault?

"I just say my name," he said.

And then he went back to delivering towels.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No huddle, no problem for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Carolina trailed 21-7 when it went to the no-huddle offense on its final drive of the first half of Sunday’s 31-24 victory against the Chicago Bears.

The Panthers scored a touchdown on that drive, as well as their first drive of the second half (also in the no-huddle), which tied the game at 21.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton completed 8 of 11 for 124 yards and a TD during two no-huddle drives against Chicago.
Newton was particularly efficient during those drives, completing 8 of 11 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. He was 8-for-24 for 131 yards and a touchdown the rest of the game.

Newton threw to six different receivers during the no-huddle drives, with five different receivers making a catch. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was targeted twice, getting turned around and unable to make a play on the ball while open in the end zone on the first drive.

He dropped a pass on the second drive. He also dropped what would've been a touchdown on the second drive, but was let off the hook when officials called defensive pass interference.

Had Benjamin made a couple of plays, Newton’s numbers would have been more impressive. Regardless, the no-huddle attack was key to the comeback.

"Man, that was one of our best drives of the season," tight end Greg Olsen said of the drive before the half. “Went down ... bang, bang. Cam was in an awesome groove there. From that point on he was on fire. That kind of sparked us going into halftime."

Newton said there was no sense of panic when Carolina went to the no-huddle.

"We’ve been in these particular situations before, either with the lead or without it," he said. "And guys responded, and that’s what you want to see."

The Panthers have used the no-huddle in other games to get Newton and the offense into a rhythm. They used it on their first three drives in a Week 4 loss at Baltimore.

Newton was 8-for-12 for 135 yards and a touchdown on those drives. He was 6-for-13 for 62 yards the rest of the game. Were it not for an offensive pass interference penalty and sack, the Panthers likely would have come away with at least a field goal on the first drive.

"He reacts to a lot of things and he makes a lot of good decisions when we put it in his hands like that," coach Ron Rivera said of Newton in the no-huddle. "That’s something he thrives on."

The Panthers don’t run the no-huddle to speed the game up as some teams do. They typically use most of the 40 seconds between plays and the 25 seconds after the ball is declared ready for play before making the snap.

They run it in much the same way as Peyton Manning does at Denver, letting Newton make adjustments at the line and giving the defense no opportunity to substitute.

Still, it’s a shift in philosophy for a Carolina team that last season used more "real time" -- 42.7 seconds -- between plays than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"When you look at us running the no-huddle, it’s not us trying to run fast," Newton said. "It’s just trying to tempo the defense. We can’t allow the defense to pin their ears back and stay fresh on every down.

"We have as athletic of offensive linemen as I’ve been around. We have great endurance, so we use that as our edge for each and every game."

But Newton is the key.

"He does a good job of recognizing the defense and he does a good job of keeping it going," center Ryan Kalil said. "I thought obviously we were able to get in more of a rhythm.

"Not that the huddle stuff wasn’t effective, but for whatever reason we were able to keep the momentum going and keep them on their heels and finish. That’s what you want to do."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton missed the season opener with broken ribs. Then defensive end Greg Hardy was deactivated for the second game.

For most of the first two weeks of the NFL season, the focus on the Carolina Panthers has been off the field.

They're 2-0 on it, in case anybody hasn't noticed.

The Panthers have shown in consecutive weeks that they are bigger than one player. When Newton was out, backup Derek Anderson had a top-five quarterback rating in a victory at Tampa Bay. In Hardy's absence, backup Mario Addison stepped up with 2.5 sacks in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit.

The Panthers faced a week of scrutiny for not disciplining Hardy, who is appealing a July 15 guilty verdict on domestic violence charges. The criticism coincided with the Baltimore Ravens' release of Ray Rice, who was shown on video punching his then-fiancée, and the Minnesota Vikings' decision to deactivate Adrian Peterson, who is charged with negligent injury to a child.

"For us, the biggest thing is not to get caught up in all the sensationalism and really let the facts play out before we start passing judgment and having opinions about it publicly," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said, describing how he and his teammates are approaching the Hardy situation.

"That's what we've decided as a team, and that's what we're doing. And the biggest thing, at the end of the day we still have a job to do."

So far, they've done it well. Ron Rivera's team is focused so much on winning that, as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery noted, some players weren't really aware of Hardy being deactivated until they got on the field.

"It starts with the head man," Cotchery said. "Every day, Coach Rivera focuses us in on the game plan."

The defense has proven to be every bit as good as the one that finished second in the league a season ago. It might be one of the deepest, too, as the Panthers didn't miss a beat without Hardy.

"We're a complete team," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's not about one man around here. It's all about us coming together and playing as a team, offensively, defensively and special teams.

"When we're able to do that, we can be a special bunch."

Sunday's win indeed was a team victory. Seven different players caught passes from Newton, who compiled a rating of 100.2 after a slow start.

Even placekicker Graham Gano had a fumble recovery.

And did I mention leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (thigh) didn't play, either?

"We're just trying to win a championship," Cotchery said.

That has been the focus since San Francisco spoiled last season's storybook run by defeating Carolina 23-10 in the playoffs.

"No disrespect, it's not about what you guys say, it's not about what anybody says outside this organization," Newton said to reporters. "At the end of the day, if the 53 guys that are ready to go come day are on the same page, there's no telling what our team can do.

"That's what we're showing, guys that believe in each other, believing in ourselves and not playing for ourselves, playing for the persons that are next to us. With that attitude we'll go a long way."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You couldn't help but notice Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen as he left Thursday's practice in a full sprint only minutes after arriving.

There was a distressed look on his face.

It's a natural reaction for a parent when your son is in a nearby hospital needing a procedure after recently going through his third open heart surgery since being born in 2012 with a heart defect.

The team said a prayer for Olsen, who assured coach Ron Rivera he would be back Friday and ready to go for Sunday's home opener against Detroit. Olsen was back, and tweeted that his son is recovering well.

.

Carolina needs Olsen on the field almost like his son T.J. needed him by his side Thursday. The eighth-year veteran is critical to what the Panthers do offensively, leading the team in receptions (73) and touchdown catches (6) last season and starting this season with a team-high eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in a 20-14 victory at Tampa Bay.

Olsen might be the best tight end in the NFL who hasn't made the Pro Bowl.

Maybe now that Tony Gonzalez is retired, Antonio Gates is past his prime and Rob Gronkowski is another injury waiting to happen, Olsen will get noticed on the field the way he was noticed running off the field Thursday.

He should have been already.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSince being drafted in 2007, Greg Olsen ranks fifth among tight ends in receptions (389), eighth in yards (4,263) and eighth in receiving TDs (37).
That Olsen hasn't made the Pro Bowl since Chicago selected him with the 31st pick of the 2007 draft is somewhat surprising. He had the numbers to make it last season, maybe even the year before, when he had 69 catches for 843 yards and five touchdowns.

"It's disappointing because I know what a good player Greg is," four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "The hard thing is you have some older guys who are some big-name recognition guys and they still play pretty good football. For him, he's just in a holding pattern for those spots.

"I consider him a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end, and not just his production and what he does on the field, but he's an incredible pro."

That Olsen has played in the NFC South with New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and, until last season, Atlanta's Gonzalez makes it easier to understand the snub. But consider that since 2008 Olsen is the only tight end in the NFL to catch at least five touchdowns a season.

Consider that, since entering the league, Olsen ranks fifth among tight ends in receptions (389), eighth in yards (4,263) and eighth in receiving touchdowns (37).

And all it cost the Panthers to get Olsen from Chicago in 2011 was a third-round pick, which looks like a steal now.

Yet when the top tight ends in the NFL come up in conversation, Olsen's name seldom is mentioned.

Perhaps it comes down to notoriety and touchdowns for Pro Bowl consideration. Graham was a no-brainer last season with 86 catches and 16 touchdowns. San Francisco's Vernon Davis had 21 fewer catches than Olsen but had 13 touchdowns. Denver's Julius Thomas had eight fewer catches but had 12 touchdowns.

"People don't give Greg Olsen enough credit for the type of football player he is," Rivera said. "He first of all studies and understands the game very well, and he knows exactly where he needs to be in certain situations.

"He understands who he's going up against and what they do well in terms of defense."

And it doesn't matter who is throwing him the ball, Newton or backup Derek Anderson, who played in the opener while Newton gave his fractured ribs an extra week to heal.

"Greg is an underrated talent in this league, to say the least," said Newton, who will be back in the lineup Sunday. "He understands what his purpose is for each and every play, as well as correcting the play calls in the huddle during the game -- what people don't see.

"For Greg, it's being consistent, a reliable source each and every time the ball is thrown to him. And that's what I like about him the most."

It's not just Olsen's receiving that makes him Pro Bowl-caliber. He plays a big part in Carolina's running game that is key to this ball control offense.

"You watch the Tampa game, he can block, man," Kalil said. "He's one of the better blocking tight ends I've ever played with or seen."

Backup tight end Ed Dickson didn't know a lot about Olsen before arriving in Carolina from Baltimore. But after spending the offseason and preseason working with him, he believes Olsen is one of the best tight ends in the league.

"He's a great individual player, and he makes the team better," Dickson said. "Whoever makes the team better deserves to go to the Pro Bowl. And when you can do the things Greg does, it's a matter of time before he makes the Pro Bowl."

Panthers vs. Buccaneers preview

September, 5, 2014
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Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.

Hits will keep coming for Cam Newton

September, 3, 2014
9/03/14
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's a number you've probably already heard or seen, one you will hear and see more as the Carolina Panthers get closer to Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay.

The number is 467.

That's how many times quarterback Cam Newton has been hit the past three seasons. It's significant because no other NFL quarterback has been hit more than 230 times during that span.

It's even more significant because Newton is coming off March surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle and has fractured ribs suffered in an Aug. 22 exhibition loss to New England.

Why is the number, compiled by ESPN Stats and Information, so high? The simple answer: Running is a big part of Newton's game, whether it's the read-option or a scramble or because he holds onto the ball too long.

He has accounted for 31.2 percent of Carolina's rush offense since being selected with the first pick of the 2011 draft. That's the highest percentage for a team by a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton carried 11 times for 50 yards and a touchdown last year at Tampa Bay.
He has 28 rushing touchdowns during that span. The next highest are Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck with seven. The only two players with more are running backs Marshawn Lynch of Seattle and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

Newton also doesn't slide and seldom runs out of bounds. He often takes on tacklers like a fullback, turning his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame into a weapon to get every yard he can.

He doesn't plan to change just because of the injuries.

"I am who I am,'' Newton said recently. "This is a physical sport and needs to be played that way.''

There's a good chance Newton will have to run on Sunday despite the ribs. He ran 11 times, his second-highest total of 2013, in the seventh game at Tampa. The Buccaneers through free agency have strengthened already one of the league's best defensive fronts, anchored by Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy.

Newton doesn't appear concerned. He likes challenges. His teammates say there are no concerns,. Tight end Greg Olsen called his quarterback a "tough guy.'' Left tackle Byron Bell called him a "fighter.''

How effective Newton will be remains to be seen. He showed great range of motion dancing to a rap song during warmups on Wednesday, but he didn't throw a pass or take a rep during practice because he was sore.

Coach Ron Rivera says he expects Newton to start. He also expects the Panthers to move forward with the same game plan as usual, which means Newton at some point will get hit number 468.

Probably 469, 470 and so on considering he ran 11 times at Tampa last season.

"It's his style of play,'' Rivera said. "You'd like to see him develop another style or taper his style and control it. But again, that's who he is. If you take too much away from him and take too much, it changes his game.

"But I do think it's something he's going to have to learn as he matures as a quarterback on how to slide, how to get rid of the ball, how to not take those kinds of hits.''

In other words, 467 is a lot of hits in three years.

"He's still standing?'' tight end Ed Dickson said jokingly when asked what that many meant to him.

Then he added, "You can't take the ball out of his hands. He makes us better running the ball and throwing the ball.''

Dickson took it one step forward, saying Newton ran just as well as running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

"When he's out there, we're definitely a better team,'' he said.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson reminded Newton makes a lot of plays because he's not afraid to get hit.

"Then he runs 60 yards for a touchdown,'' he said. "There's not a lot of guys that can do that.''

Center Ryan Kalil said Newton has handled the hits because "he's a tough guy, maybe as tough as I've been around.''

Kalil also jokingly reminded that centers are tough.

"I'm going to start doing some numbers on the times I've been rolled up, had fingers smashed, hit in the back,'' he said. "That's an interesting number.

"Yeah, [Newton's] a very active player. He's a guy that runs around. He can do a lot of things with the ball. With that comes the hits.''

Pouncey, Polamalu crack top 100

August, 25, 2014
8/25/14
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PITTSBURGH -- Two more Pittsburgh Steelers surfaced on ESPN.com’s list of the top 100 NFL players for both offense and defense.

Pouncey
Polamalu
Center Maurkice Pouncey is No. 42 on offense and strong safety Troy Polamalu is No. 46 on defense.

Polamalu dropped 13 spots from his 2013 ESPN.com ranking after the Steelers slipped to No. 13 in total defense last season, when they had trouble stopping the run and were vulnerable to big plays. Polamalu still made his eighth Pro Bowl in 2013 after finishing third on the Steelers with 85 tackles, forcing a career-high five fumbles and tying for the team lead with two interceptions.

Polamalu, who is entering his 12th season, played every snap last season.

Pouncey, was on the other end of the spectrum in 2013, missing all but eight snaps after tearing several ligaments in his right knee, including his ACL.

The three-time Pro Bowler was hurt when teammate David DeCastro crashed into his lower leg after missing a cut block in the Steelers’ season opener against the visiting Tennessee Titans.

Pouncey has since made a full recovery, and the Steelers signed the fifth-year veteran to a five-year, $44 million contract in June, making him one of the highest paid players at his position.

Pouncey, who moved up 12 spots from his 2013 ranking, is ahead of centers such as Carolina's Ryan Kalil (No. 47) and the the Jets' Nick Mangold (No. 49).

Camp Confidential: Carolina Panthers

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't a long message, but it spoke volumes about where the Carolina Panthers are mentally.

"Don't sleep on the Panthers," Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert said.

The Panthers nationally have been dubbed the NFL team most likely to take a big fall. After Carolina lost its top four wide receivers, its starting left tackle and three-fourths of its secondary, many predict four to five fewer wins than its 12-4 2013 season.

Throw in offseason ankle surgery for quarterback Cam Newton and legal issues involving Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and one easily could argue that the Panthers have had the worst offseason of any team in the league.

That they've never put together consecutive winning seasons since coming into the league 20 years ago doesn't help.

Coach Ron Rivera uses this as motivation. His players use it as a lack of respect.

They're playing the underdog role to the hilt.

"We put a lot of work in last year and a lot of people didn't give us a chance," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "So this offseason [there have been] a lot of questions about what we're doing next and it's sort of the same thing. We're just starting over refocusing. That's something that is going to be incredible for us."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Even Rivera admitted he was concerned when Carolina failed to sign wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith. He went as far as to say the team didn't need a true No. 1. That seems like a distant memory. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a legitimate No. 1. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have brought in the leadership and consistency. This group is closer than last year's that averaged slightly less than 10 catches a game. With more talent at tight end, it will open up the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has the makings of being a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
2. General manager Dave Gettleman likes what he calls "hog mollies" -- big players on both sides of the line. He has put together a group on the defensive front that is deeper than some of the best units he had while with the New York Giants. Carolina has eight or nine players who could play for most teams. Having the luxury to rotate big, fast bodies in without suffering a significant drop-off should help the league's No. 2 defense -- No. 1 in sacks -- in 2013 maintain its elite status.

3. Led by Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has a solid core on both sides of the ball. Newton is more confident and poised than ever as he enters his fourth season. The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March should be stronger, making him more dangerous as a runner. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has been compared to some of the all-time greats, such as Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. He is a tackling machine who lives and breathes football. He makes everybody around him better. So does Newton.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Kalil laughed when I asked him about all the questions surrounding the restructured offensive line, saying the line has been a question mark since he arrived eight years ago. The difference is Carolina had Jordan Gross at left tackle all those years. The Panthers don't now. Regardless of how the battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler shakes out to replace Gross, Carolina will have two undrafted players starting at the tackle positions because the other will start on the right side. No other team probably can -- or wants to -- say that.

2. The Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995. Their average win total the season after their previous four winning seasons is 7.5. That there's never been a repeat winner in the NFC South doesn't bode well, either. That Atlanta and Tampa Bay should be stronger, and New Orleans should be solid once again, will make repeating last year's 5-1 division record tough. The overall schedule should be tougher, as well, particularly an Oct. 12-30 stretch of at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
AP Photo/Mike McCarnReplacing retired Jordan Gross remains a priority for the Panthers.
3. Back to the offensive line: It's a fragile situation. Although the starters could surprise, the depth outside of Garry Williams (T/G) and Chris Scott (G) is suspect. This team can't afford to lose three guards, as it did early last season, and still succeed. It especially can't afford a loss at tackle. Plus, it is depending on rookie Trai Turner out of LSU as the starting right guard. As consistent as he has looked in camp, he's still a rookie.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Benjamin and Newton have formed a bond off the field that obviously has helped their chemistry on it. It's a relationship Newton never had with Smith.
  • Benjamin has made more spectacular catches in his first few weeks of camp than arguably any receiver in Carolina history.
  • Despite being found guilty on domestic violence charges, which he is appealing, Hardy has remained popular among fans seeking autographs.
  • The addition of free agent Ed Dickson and the emergence of Brandon Williams to go opposite Greg Olsen makes the Panthers deep at tight end. They'll go with a lot of two-TE sets that will force teams to put eight in the box and open up the entire offense.
  • Replacing Ginn (Arizona) as a kick returner remains a challenge.
  • The Panthers love the leadership of Charles Godfrey, but if he doesn't show improvement in his transition from safety to the nickel corner, they'll love somebody else. Maybe rookie Bené Benwikere.
  • Running back Jonathan Stewart has spent so much time on the stationary bike rehabbing injuries the past three training camps that some are wondering whether he's training for the Tour de France.
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.

Panthers still have key leaders

April, 22, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton's movement might be hampered by a walking boot to protect his left ankle, but his signature smile is as smooth as ever.

The quarterback for the Carolina Panthers said all the right things on Tuesday about offseason moves that left him without his top four wide receivers from last season.

He downplayed any role management's desire for him to become more of a leader had in the controversial release of Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers are confident Cam Newton, Ryan Kalil and Luke Kuechly can fill the leadership void created when veteran receiver Steve Smith was released.
He talked about how scary good he could be playing without pain in the surgically repaired ankle for the first time since he left Auburn as the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

And he said it all with that infectious smile that makes you believe all will be good in Pantherland.

"We are all trying to accomplish one goal and one goal only -- to raise the Lombardi Trophy," Newton said on Tuesday, the team's second day of offseason workouts.

The Panthers are a long way from being a Super Bowl contender. They are a long way from being a playoff contender, particularly offensively with a new wide receiver corps, and new players at left and possibly right tackle if Byron Bell is able to successfully switch sides.

But at least they have Newton, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL. If he can progress as much between his third and fourth seasons as he did between his second and third, that should at least keep Carolina competitive on offense.

"No matter who or what the receivers look like, this is a team game," Newton said. "And we all are cautioned about what has been done in this offseason as far as acquisitions and trades and releases. But the fact is, we have our team right now.

"Am I happy about it? Absolutely. Am I ready to take on the challenge? Absolutely. Those guys are hungry, more than ever. And that’s what you want to see, not only in the receiver group, but in the tight end group and running back group, the offensive line group and quarterback group and defensively."

They are only words, but Newton has proven to be more than a big talker throughout his career. That is why when he says things will be all right in the post-Smith era, teammates believe him.

And what teammates believe really is more significant than the fan base that has been more than critical of the moves made by general manager Dave Gettleman after last season's 12-4 season.

You win with strong leaders, and in Newton the Panthers apparently have one. The smile magnifies it.

"The thing that you like is it's sincere," center Ryan Kalil said. "It's not something he puts on for show."

Newton was one of three players ushered in for interviews on Tuesday. The other two were Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Coincidence? Hardly.

Newton is the player coach Ron Rivera and Gettleman want to be more assertive as a leader. Kalil is the veteran expected to replace the locker room presence of retired left tackle Jordan Gross, although Kalil admits replacing Gross' pre-game speeches is a tall order.

And Kuechly is the defensive leader, not so much by what he says, but by what he does.

Those three are a big reason management believes the Panthers can put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history.

"I feel great about the guys that are stepping into those roles," Kalil said. "They're really good people. To me those are the best kinds of leaders.

"Even though Cam is someone who likes to get in front of the mic and thinks he's a lot more entertaining than he really is, he does a great job. I mean, the guy works hard day in and day out, in the classroom and on the field. Luke's the epitome of that. If those are going to be our leaders, then those are good leaders."

There remain big questions. Can Bell replace Gross? Can wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood equal or improve on the production of Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon? Can the defense remain a force for the second straight season with a makeshift secondary?

But there is no questioning the leadership. There is no questioning Newton's leadership after two-plus seasons of nothing but questions about it.

As Kuechly said, leading is about doing what's natural. Newton's smile and ability to elevate those around him is as natural as they come.

When he recovers from surgery to repair stretched tendons, Newton's natural ability to be a threat with his legs as well as his arm will play a big role as well.

"When I saw him yesterday, same old Cam, happy, running around, cracking jokes," Kuechly said of Newton, albeit there was no running around. "The biggest thing is he's excited to go out and play a football game.

"He's very confident this year in what he's doing, and it's going to show."

Newton, along with the core of the league's second-ranked defense, is why Gettleman had the confidence to make the offseason moves that made him a target for criticism.

It's way too early to tell if he's right, but Newton has the charisma to make it feel possible.

"We have a lot of guys that are hungry and ready to prove something in this league," Newton said. "And that’s what I want to do as well."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was fitting that construction at Bank of America Stadium forced the Carolina Panthers to hold Wednesday's retirement news conference for left tackle Jordan Gross in the visitor's locker room.

As the landscape of Carolina's playground changes, so does the landscape of the team -- particularly the offensive line.

There's a chance in 2014 that center Ryan Kalil is the only starter at the same position he was when last season ended. It's not an enviable position for a team looking to get back to the playoffs, but it easily could happen.

Here's how looking at last year's starters:

Left tackle -- Gross. We know he's gone. Coach Ron Rivera said his replacement could come from one of three players on the existing roster in right tackle Byron Bell, fifth-year player Bruce Campbell or Nate Chandler, a backup tackle before injuries forced him into the lineup at right guard. If it's not one of those, then it'll be a free agent or draft pick. Regardless, a new starter.

Left guard -- Travelle Wharton. He started the final 14 games there, including the playoffs. But he was signed after starter Amini Silatolu was injured in training camp. There's a good chance the 32-year-old Wharton, a free agent, won't be re-signed. And even if he is it's likely a healthy Silatolu will get first dibs on the starting job. Or maybe it'll be Chris Scott, who started there in the opener before moving to the right side to replace the injured Gary Williams (ACL). Don't count out Williams, either.

Center -- Kalil. Four Pro Bowls since 2008. He's not going anywhere.

Right guard -- Nate Chandler. He played well, starting most of the final nine games after Scott suffered a knee injury in the first Atlanta game. He kept the job even after Scott was healthy. But suppose Scott beats him out in camp? Or Chandler gets the left tackle job. Or Edmund Kugbila, last year's fourth-round pick that spent the season on injured reserve, could take the job. Don't forget as I said above Williams, who started there the first game before the season-ending knee injury. Don't count on Geoff Hangartner. He plans on riding into the sunset with Gross unless something dramatically changes last minute.

Right tackle -- Bell. He took a lot of heat last season for allowing sacks, and according to Gross much of it was undeserved. Gross, like Rivera, said Bell should have a shot at left tackle. If he gets that job, there's an opening on the right side. There could be anyway if the coaching staff feels that heat was deserved and an adequate replacement can be found.

And don't forget, the Panthers certainly will sign a free agent offensive lineman or two and draft at least one. General manager Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside out with what he called "hog mollies'' after taking a pair of defensive tackles with Carolina's first two picks in the 2013 draft.

I often am wary of teams with a new front line. But like Bank of America Stadium, it could be better when the renovations are completed.

Let Gross explain.

"I always said I don't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are,'' he said on Wednesday. "They should be for a long time, and that's going to be regardless of whether I am here or not.

"And that's a beautiful thing.''

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