SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Carolina Panthers played their first 14 games last season without a defensive player missing a start.
Less than a half-hour had passed in the first training camp practice Monday morning when starting defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu went down with a torn Achilles tendon.
General manager Marty Hurney said it wasn't known how long Kemoeatu will be out, although it's almost certain that an injury so severe means he probably will miss the season. Hurney said an announcement on Kemoeatu should come today.
Surgery hasn't yet been scheduled for Kemoeatu, who was carted off the field lying on his back. He was taken to Charlotte later Monday.
"We have to figure out what the next step is," Hurney said. "You never like to lose anybody to an injury for any amount of time. But we also know the reality of it. Injuries happen, which is why we put so much effort into trying to have depth on our roster. We have young guys who have to step up."
The injury, however, hit at one of the Panthers' most vulnerable positions. The only backup defensive tackle with any playing experience is second-year pro Nick Hayden, who appeared in two games last season. Undrafted rookie free agent Marlon Favorite took Kemoeatu's place with the first team in practice.
The Panthers might be forced to sign a veteran replacement. Among available free agents is former New York Jets first-round pick Dewayne Robertson, who played for the Denver Broncos last season.
Kemoeatu is one of the Panthers' most important players defending the run. At 6 feet 5, 345 pounds, he not only makes tackles (40 last season), he also takes up blockers to clear the way for Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason.
"That's one of my bodyguards, him and Damione [Lewis]," Beason said. "Obviously, a guy of his size, being 350-plus, you need two guys to block him. So there's two guys, which is one less guy for me. It allows me to be free and run and make more plays."
Beason said his job without Kemoeatu is much more difficult.
"A guy they don't respect as much, if they single-block him, I'll have to deal with more guards and centers and fullbacks," Beason said.
Beason said the Panthers were in a defensive pursuit drill when Kemoeatu was injured.
"Injuries are part of this game," coach John Fox said. "In camp, we get guys [that] things happen to. With a coach, it's a fine line. One of the hard things about camp is you've got to get ready to play football, yet you want to make sure you've got some guys to play football with."
Favorite (6-1, 317 pounds) started 17 of 30 games at LSU, recording 78 tackles and four sacks. He said it was "a shocking experience" to be thrust into playing with the first team but that he came to training camp expecting the unexpected.
"It's how the game is," Favorite said. "You never know what's going to happen.
"On my part, what I'm going to do is every day go out there and get better ... [and] keep Maake in my prayers. Obviously, this was devastating to the whole team."
The Panthers' lack of experienced depth at defensive tackle is mirrored at other positions, including offensive line, wide receiver and long snapper.
In those areas, team officials are hoping to develop young players, a strategy necessitated by their lack of salary cap room because of signing veteran starters to long-term contract extensions and committing more than $18 million of cap space to franchised defensive end Julius Peppers.
Lewis, Kemoeatu's fellow starter at defensive tackle, voiced concern about the need to have good depth at the position since the aggressive style of play preferred by new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks will necessitate rotating players on the line.
"If we're going to play the way they want us to play where we're flying around and being 20 yards downfield chasing down balls, you have to be able to rotate," Lewis said. "That's why it's so important for us to make sure we have good depth and it's not a fall-off between guys coming in and off the field.
"That's the only way this defense can be successful the way they want to do it."
The Panthers gave up 301 yards rushing, most in team history, against the New York Giants late last season, when injuries hit Kemoeatu and Lewis.
Beason said there's a "night and day" difference when the Panthers don't have their starting defensive tackles, though he sees promise in Favorite and some of the other young backups.
"There are some glimpses in there," Beason said. "But if you have those [glimpses], you have to work on doing it every play. That's the hard part. Those [young] guys get tired, and [the offensive linemen] they're playing across from are pretty good, too."
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