Carolina Panthers

How playing in SEC – the ‘JV to the NFL’ – allowed Panthers rookie Daley to flourish

Here he is, innocuous, bent over in his too-small locker space eating cafeteria nachos from a too-small Styrofoam box.

Some celebration for Dennis Daley, the best left tackle in football last weekend.

That title — best left tackle last weekend — comes from Pro Football Focus — PFF for short — which is an analytics site that grades and ranks every player at every position. It’s not gospel, but it’s highly regarded in league circles. And even with some amount of subjectivity in the formula, it’s hard to argue with the site’s assessment of Daley.

The evaluation reads: “For a sixth-round draft pick making just his second start, it doesn’t get much better than this. Daley was impressive in pass protection, allowing just one hit from 36 pass-rushing snaps, and he really impressed as a run blocker.”

As for what that means to Daley?

“I saw it. It’s a blessing, man,” the rookie offensive lineman said. “Honestly, I didn’t even expect it ... I wasn’t working to get that, but it just came.”

Daley is talking about his Week 6 performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London, where he held the NFL’s sacks leader Shaq Barrett without a quarterback takedown. Of course he had help at times — the team used tight ends Greg Olsen and Chris Manhertz to chip on Daley’s side — but the rookie more than held his own.

“I thought up front, our offensive line, I thought we had a good plan,” Olsen said. “I think we put them in a really good position to not make it all on one guy’s shoulders and drop back 1,000 times. That’s tough sledding on any good pass-rusher.”

And while it’s that particular performance that has earned Daley praise, he also played well the week before against Jacksonville and throughout the preseason.

Daley first arrived in Charlotte this summer to build depth on the offensive line. After re-signing Daryl Williams in the spring, the team also traded up for tackle Greg Little in the second round of April’s NFL Draft. Daley wasn’t selected until the sixth round, partially due to a poor performance at the scouting combine.

But with his size — Daley is listed at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds — and two years of experience starting for South Carolina in the SEC, he’s proven he’s not as developmental as originally thought.

Dennis Daley played left tackle for two seasons at South Carolina before the Carolina Panthers selected him in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Dwayne McLemore

“I’m not surprised (how I’ve played), because playing in the SEC is pretty much a JV to the NFL. It’s NFL-in-training pretty much,” Daley said. “So I’ve kind of got that same coaching style and the same defenses and the play style, I got that in college. Just came here and they took it to another level.”

Daley only played two years for the Gamecocks after transferring from Georgia Military College — his younger brother is a student there now — but in that time, said he played against a number of future NFL first-round picks like Josh Allen of Kentucky and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell.

So when Allen lined up against him in Week 5, thanks to that prior experience, Daley already knew what he was capable of.

“I guess South Carolina helped me learn football,” he said.

Coach Ron Rivera said that SEC prerequisite was part of what made Daley an attractive draft prospect.

“One thing that he did that we liked when we saw him coming out of college was when he went from junior college to college,” Riversa said. “They plugged him in right away and he was their left tackle.”

Daley has the most experience at left tackle, he said, having played there at South Carolina. But he also played the position in junior college and in high school, and every year except his first one playing football back in tenth grade (he was a right tackle then).

Still, the Panthers always saw him as someone who could slide around the offensive line. Especially with Little as the left tackle of the future and Taylor Moton entrenched opposite him on the right, Daley’s positional versatility — something the Panthers place a premium on already — became even more key.

“We bring him here and because of his size and his quickness and his athleticism, we put him at guard because it allows him to pull and move, and we saw it,” Rivera said. “But we also knew if we had to, we could play him at right tackle, left tackle, right guard or left guard — and we just know that he has that kind of ability to play either of those positions.”

Little is still in concussion protocol, Rivera said on Tuesday, but when he is cleared to return, Daley’s stint in the starting lineup should come to an end. Still, given Carolina’s past issues with offensive line depth, his temporary emergence has been a welcome sight.

Now if you’ll excuse Daley, he’d like to move on from the PFF praise, get back to his nachos and on with his bye week.

“I don’t pay attention to (praise). Because at the end of the day, it’s all about me,” Daley said. “I can’t let it build me up too much or I can’t let anything people say bring me down. I just gotta focus on me.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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