The NFL free agency deadline arrived Tuesday, and with it a better sense of where key free agents have signed and of what teams needs are going forward through the free agent market and/or the upcoming draft on May 8th. Many top free agents were signed before the deadline today, but for the Carolina Panthers, the moves that made the most noise right before the free agency deadline were the tender offers to restricted free agent right tackle Byron Bell, who’ll be 25 years old when the season begins, and unrestricted free agent reserve offensive lineman Chris Scott, who’ll be 26.
The retirement of stalwart lineman Jordan Gross left the Panthers with a large void at left tackle, no pun intended, and the resigning of Bell and Scott takes some of the pressure off of the Panthers as they prepare for the draft four weeks from now. The versatility of starting right guard Nate Chandler, Gross’ back up in 2013, allows the team to move him to left tackle to replace Gross; Scott, Chandler’s back up, could move to starting right guard seamlessly. These moves essentially allow the Panthers offensive line to stay relatively intact, and chemistry cannot be overstated, especially for a young quarterback.
The two offensive linemen that remained free agents entering the deadline Tuesday were starting left guard Travelle Wharton, who has hinted at retirement in recent weeks, and reserve offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, who announced his retirement today (Charlotte Observer story). The uncertainty of Wharton’s status and Hangartner’s retirement leaves a potential void at left guard.
Also making news in Carolina today was the resigning of reserve offensive lineman Garry Williams, who began the 2013 season as the starting right guard, only to be injured during the opening game v. the Seattle Seahawks; Wharton will be 33 years old entering next season, and the resigning of Garry Williams may have offered some insight into the Panther’s plans for the line next year. The Panthers also resigned reserve tight end/fullback Richie Brockel, a player who should contribute to the run game and special teams next season.
If the Panthers don’t plan to resign Wharton, or if he were to retire, the Panthers could potentially move Williams back to starting right guard, where he began the last season before injuring his knee, and move Scott to left guard, again, essentially keeping their offensive line intact. Such a move would be wise considering the average age of that projected starting offensive line entering next season would be 27 years old.
In the event that Wharton does retire and the Panthers aren’t comfortable enough with the veteran linemen that they have on the roster, the 2014 offensive line draft class is one of the best in years. The Panthers own the 28th and 60th picks in the first two rounds of the upcoming draft, and there are franchise-level players at both of those projected picks.
For analysis purposes, let’s assume the Panthers draft an offensive lineman in one of the first two rounds. Below is a list of the linemen the Panthers could not only land in the draft at their current position, but could also make an immediate impact (overall ranking according to CBSSports.com):
23. Xavier Su’a-Filo, OG, UCLA, 6’4” 307 lbs; Combine results: 5.04 (40), 25 (bench press): 1st Rd.
35. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, 6’7” 322 lbs; Combine results: 5.59 (40), 21 (bench press): 1-2 Rd.
36. David Yankey, OG, Stanford, 6’6” 315 lbs; Combine results: 5.48 (40), 22 (bench press): 1-2 Rd.
46. Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia, 6’6” 314 lbs; Combine results: 5.35 (40), N/A (bench press): 2nd Rd.
49. Gabe Jackson, OG, Miss. State, 6’3” 336 lbs; Combine results: 5.34 (40), 30 (bench press): 2nd Rd.
55. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tenn, 6’6” 335 lbs; Combine results: 5.30 (40), 36 (bench press): 2nd Rd.
61. Jack Mewort, OT, Ohio State, 6’6” 309 lbs; Combine results: 5.37 (40), 28 (bench): 2nd Rd.
69. Brandon Thomas, OG, Clemson, 6’3” 317 lbs; Combine results: 5.09 (40), 35 (bench): 2nd Rd.
With the recent contract awarded to current restricted/unrestricted offensive lineman, the Carolina Panthers line is in good shape heading into 2014 and it seems whether the Panthers resign Wharton to anchor his right guard position, or move Williams back to starting guard and/or draft another offensive lineman, the Panthers could be in a great position no matter the result. Carolina continues to make smart cap decisions heading into 2014 and beyond, and with quarterback Cam Newton, the team’s most important player, set for free agency after next season, the timing for such heady moves could not be better.
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