Time for Panther haters to eat crow

By Jeff Linville - [email protected]

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

That was the kind of reaction that football fans and TV “experts” had this spring after the NFL Draft.

What were the Panthers thinking? With a draft like that, the team is doomed to an 8-8 season.

Well, here we are midway through the season, and the Panthers already have those eight wins with more surely to come.

As a two-decade supporter of our home team, I feel like the national talking heads collectively owe Carolina an apology for all the hate slung its way during the spring and summer.

The biggest complaint from detractors was that the Panthers didn’t draft a left tackle. For the second year in a row, predictions were everywhere that the team would pick a tackle in the first or second round.

Well, the team did have some tackles on its war room draft board, but they were all gone when the team finally came up. The downside of making the playoffs two years in a row was that it guaranteed a low draft position.

In 2014, the team wanted Zack Martin or Taylor Lewan. Both were supposed to be available near the end of the first round until Lewan put together a great showing at the combine, and the Cowboys picked Martin and moved him to guard.

Then the talking heads at the NFL Network believed the Panthers had to get Cyrus Kouandjio, even though the tackle was battling a knee injury.

Kouandjio played only three snaps in his rookie season. Then he made one start this season before going out with knee problems. I’m glad Carolina didn’t pick him.

General Manager Dave Gettleman said he only had four tackles rated as first-round worthy, and all were gone before the Panthers picked. So the Panthers got Kelvin Benjamin, who was a leading candidate for rookie of the year.

Another four tackles came off the board before the second-round pick came up, so Carolina chose Kony Ealy, who had a quiet rookie year, but has come on strong this season with two strip sacks and numerous QB pressures in place of the injured Charles Johnson.

The same issues occurred this spring. The Panthers had a few players targeted at tackle, but five were selected before the Panthers came up. Rather than reach on a player the scouts didn’t like, the team picked OLB Shaq Thompson, whom team officials likened to a young Thomas Davis.

The rookie was averaging five tackles a game before spraining a knee, but is expected back this coming week.

When the Panthers didn’t pick a tackle two years in a row, every NFL show predicted the whole offense would struggle because of a subpar line. Michael Oher couldn’t handle left tackle any better than Byron Bell, they said.

Well, Bell finished 2014 ranked in the 70s among tackles. There are two starters on a team and 32 teams, so Pro Football Focus had Bell ranked lower than several bench-warmers.

So Oher was going to be no better, right? Pro Football Focus has Oher ranked 15th in the league in pass blocking. After a shaky first couple of games where Oher got beaten a few times, the veteran has clamped down on rushers.

Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers has made a living with blitzing OLBs at Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Carolina (the team’s first head coach). However, nothing the Packers threw at Oher mattered.

After the win over the Colts, QB Cam Newton praised Oher for bringing veteran leadership and a desire to prove people wrong about him after an injury-plagued year in Tennessee.

“He has brought this chip, this attitude and this savvy that I wouldn’t say has been lacking, but he’s put that in overdrive along with (center Ryan) Kalil,” Newton said.

What Oher has done as a pass blocker is even more remarkable considering that three different left guards have played beside him because of injury: Andrew Norwell, Chris Scott and Amini Silatolu.

As for the other side, Mike Remmers has been a decent right tackle, ranking 24th overall at PFF as both a decent run blocker and pass blocker.

As for the guards, RG Trai Turner is ranked fourth overall as a dominant run blocker and good pass blocker. Norwell is 11th, ranking well in both categories. And even though Silatolu hasn’t played enough to be in the rankings, PFF’s grading of the reserve would put him about 20th or 21st in the league.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil is considered the best in the league by a lot of analysts, including PFF which has him first in the run game and fifth in pass blocking.

Backup Fernando Velasco, like Silatolu, hasn’t played enough to be officially ranked, but his performance would place him 14th, ahead of well-known names like Alex Mack, Nick Mangold and A.O. Shipley.

With a lineup like that, it’s no wonder that PFF grades the Panthers as the fourth-best line overall.

And while Kalil is very well paid at $8 million a year, the other seven guys who have played this season have a combined salary of just $8 million more. Daryl Williams and Nate Chandler add another $2.2 million, so the entire offensive line unit makes $18.2 million.

With a total team active-contract figure of $104.2 million, the line is a relative bargain.

So much for a weakness.


By Jeff Linville

[email protected]

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.

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