A frenetic wave of signings and releases in free agency this week brought big changes to the Carolina Panthers’ offensive line.
But the team’s retooling of the position is far from complete.
On Thursday, the team designated starting left tackle Matt Kalil as a post-June 1 cut. Kalil’s release will save the team about $7 million against the 2019 salary cap, and will be available in June. His five-year, $55.5 million contract, signed in 2017 and inherited by current general manager Marty Hurney, will still carry $14 million in salary cap dead money split up over the next two seasons.
Kalil, 29, played just 16 games with the Panthers as he prepared to enter the third year of his deal. A knee injury sidelined him for the 2018 season, and a source close to the matter indicated that his release, which was related to the injury and not to the salary cap, creates more clarity on the offensive line.
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So did two other moves the Panthers made in free agency this week.
Center Matt Paradis was signed to a three-year, $27 million deal with the expectation that he will take over for retired longtime starter Ryan Kalil.
And re-signing tackle Daryl Williams to a one-year, $6 million deal gives the Panthers position flexibility. The staff believes Williams could play left tackle if necessary, and even left guard as well as his preferred spot at right tackle.
The two signings weren’t flashy, but they were both smart. Still, it’s not likely the Panthers are comfortable with where their offensive line currently stands.
Not when owner David Tepper called their 2018 situation — resorting to signing tackles off their couches with both Williams and Kalil on injured reserve — a “disaster” in January.
Not when Carolina churned through three backup quarterbacks in two games, because both Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen had to exit their first NFL starts following brutal hits.
Not when franchise quarterback Cam Newton will be coming off his second shoulder surgery and must be protected in 2019 if the Panthers hopes for a successful season.
And not when the Panthers are still in wait-and-see mode regarding the health of both Williams and Paradis, who both finished the 2018 season on injured reserve.
Williams’ season ended in Week 2, after his second knee injury in a month. And Paradis went to injured reserve in Week 9, after breaking his fibula. That leaves the Panthers placing a huge amount of faith in two starting offensive linemen who played just 10 games between them in 2018.
The Panthers do have reason to be confident in both. Paradis became a starter for the Denver Broncos in 2015 and didn’t miss an regular-season offensive snap until his injury last season, despite having double-hip surgery in 2016. He passed his physical smoothly on Thursday, and is set on a June return.
“It’s been great. Steady forward progress ... I’m very optimistic,” said Paradis, shortly after signing his contract.
Williams, who earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2017, said Thursday that he feels he will be “100 percent” ready to play by the start of the 2019 season – and that he could get back on the field this week if needed.
The immediate thinking might be to start Williams at left tackle, with backup center Tyler Larsen or Greg Van Roten at left guard, Paradis at center, All-Pro Trai Turner at right guard, and third-year player Taylor Moton at right tackle, where he fared well as a starter in 2018.
But determining starters along the offensive line will be a fluid and lengthy process, as the Panthers continue to evaluate Williams’ and Paradis’ health and find the best fit for each role.
That could mean Moton playing at left tackle with Williams on the right. Or Williams at left guard, Paradis at center and Moton and a rookie selected in the April draft at right or left tackle.
Hurney’s pre-draft travel intinerary combined with his release of Kalil, plus head coach Ron Rivera’s earlier comments on the necessity of an offensive line rebuild signify that the Panthers are not done yet.
On Wednesday, Hurney attended Oklahoma’s pro day. Most of 32 teams in attendance focused on quarterback Kyler Murray, but it’s more likely that Hurney – and offensive line coach John Matsko – took a close look at all of the Sooners’ NFL-caliber offensive linemen instead.
Offensive linemen the Panthers could consider drafting in the first round include Alabama tackle Jonah Williams, Oklahoma tackle Cody Ford and Washington State tackle Andre Dillard. Each player could probably start for Carolina in 2019 – though the Panthers do not have a strong history of starting rookie offensive linemen.
The Panthers do need to draft at least one dynamic pass-rusher. Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell or Florida State’s Brian Burns have been matched with the Panthers in the first round by many NFL draft analysts in recent weeks.
But after Kalil’s release, it’s too early to rule out the team selecting an offensive lineman with one of its top two picks.
Even with the free agent signings, there is little depth at tackle and guard. As the Panthers saw after losing two centers and a left tackle to injuries in 2016 and two tackles in 2018, catastrophe can strike without warning. At that point, the team will only be as good as its second- and third-string players.
The Panthers’ signing of Paradis and Williams was a strong start toward reviving their offensive line – as long as they’re healthy. Releasing Kalil was, too.
But the team won’t settle here. It can’t afford to.