There will never be another Ryan Kalil.
The Carolina Panthers know this as they seek a replacement for their 10-year starting center and five-time Pro Bowler who retired at the end of the 2018 season.
But could a player in this year’s draft match the qualities the Panthers need in their next long-term center?
That’s the question they will ask as they study Charlotte native and North Carolina State product Garrett Bradbury, who is the best center in the 2019 draft and a potential target of the Panthers in the first round.
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Bradbury had a stellar workout at the NFL scouting combine last week. At 6-foot-3 and 304 pounds, he ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash, cranked out a whopping 34 repetitions on the bench press, and showed his quickness and fluidity with a 4.53-second 20-yard shuttle and 7.41-second three-cone drill, the best time among offensive linemen. **
But if Bradbury is to beat out other prospects for the Panthers’ No. 16 pick in April, he’ll be evaluated on much more than his impressive performance in Indianapolis.
The first thing the Panthers will need in their next center is stability and consistency.
Kalil suffered season-ending neck and shoulder injuries in 2016 and 2017. But he played in 148 games for the Panthers — starting 145 of them — since getting drafted 59th overall in 2007. And as he played, he didn’t change his approach or methodology.
“It’s very rare to be a part of the same team for that long,” said Bradbury of Kalil, while at the NFL scouting combine last week.
“From everything I hear, (Kalil was) just the same guy every day. (Came) in to get better, great work ethic.”
Bradbury feels he has those qualities. If he didn’t, he said he wouldn’t have wanted to play the game the way he wanted to in college: ceaselessly.
From a young age, Bradbury never wanted to come off the field in any sport. So whatever the role, he knew he had to perform consistently in order to get the playing time he desired.
He played both tight end and defensive lineman at Charlotte Christian High so he wouldn’t miss a snap. Then he leveraged his way into playing guard and center at N.C. State, because offensive linemen are the only players outside of a quarterback who are expected to play every down .
He started all 13 games at left guard for the Wolfpack in 2017, then in 2018 switched to center. He was awarded the Rimington Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top center, after not allowing a single sack all season.
His desire to never miss a play carried over to other sports as Bradbury was growing up. He developed a passion for baseball, and was a star catcher at Charlotte Christian before switching over to football full-time.
Playing catcher also kept him on the field as much as possible.
“Behind the dish, you get the ball every play, just like football,” he said. “Every play, you’re going to have the ball in your hands, and I just embrace that.”
His time behind home plate also taught him how to command a field — a responsibility of utmost importance for an NFL center, and one at which Kalil was elite.
“You make the calls, you get everybody in the right position,” said Bradbury.
“I think it’s what is so special about (playing center),” he added. “I love the game within the game and the pre-snap mental processing. All of that comes from preparation. I like to be as calm as possible before games, because half of my game is played before the snap.”
Finally, Carolina’s next long-term center has to have a little bit of a nasty edge on the field.
Kalil was extremely well-liked and respected around the league, but he also had a mean streak a mile wide on game day.
The Panthers want a player who can get along well with his teammates and command the respect of a locker room, but who isn’t afraid to put an someone on his back.
Bradbury thinks he is that player.
“I like to get a little nasty sometimes,” he said. “I like to compete, I like to win, I like to run the football and protect the quarterback.”