Carolina Panthers

Musical chairs along the Panthers’ offensive line hasn’t worked. Will things improve?

When Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says rookie left tackle Dennis Daley is a “big guy,” it doesn’t necessarily stand out.

But it takes on another meaning entirely when Daley, a sixth-round rookie from South Carolina, punches his powerful fingers square into the center of your sternum. Asked by this reporter what he’s most trying to improve upon, considering the entire Panthers offensive line has been up-and-down this season, Daley instead gave a hands-on display.

He isn’t the only one who needs to improve, though.

According to Football Outsiders, Carolina’s offensive line is tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks allowed (23). The Panthers also are 10th in the league in adjusted sack rate (8.2 percent), meaning Carolina’s quarterback hits the ground almost one in every 10 snaps he plays. Additionally, two of the three fastest sacks in the NFL this season have come against the Panthers, according to NFL NextGen Stats.

That is ... not ideal.

Those metrics aren’t any one lineman’s responsibility, of course. But as the Panthers offensive line has fluctuated in past weeks — arguably their best performance came against the Buccaneers in London, followed by an absolute catastrophe on Sunday against the 49ers — Daley has become more and more essential. He was named Pro Football Focus’ best left tackle of Week 6, but then struggled mightily against San Francisco, especially standout rookie defensive end Nick Bosa.

When asked about Bosa on Wednesday, Daley responded, “I’m focused on Tennessee,” referring to Sunday’s home game against the Titans.

But the truth of the matter is, now eight weeks and seven games into the season, Carolina’s offensive line still isn’t stable or dependable.

Take Daryl Williams, for example. Williams was an All-Pro right tackle who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of last season. He signed a one-year “prove-it” deal to remain in Charlotte, and he entered training camp receiving the bulk of the first-team snaps at left tackle.

Then he was bulldozed for three sacks in the team’s Week 2 loss to the Bucs.

That led the Panthers to turn to rookie Greg Little just months after they picked him in the second round of the NFL Draft. Little missed the first two weeks of the season with a concussion but was impressive in his first career game against Arizona while alternating snaps with Williams.

And then the day after the Cardinals game, Little re-entered the concussion protocol and hasn’t cleared it since.

Which finally brings us to Daley, he of the learning curve and the hands-on locker room teaching.

Daley said he’s still working on improving his technique, both in pass protection and run blocking.

“I guess in pass blocking, I’ve got to have the right sets and I have to time my punch. That’s the most important part,” Daley told the Observer. “Like say you get close enough for me to hit you ...”

And as he said it, he showed it. Daley’s hands quickly went jabbing out together, landing right in the square of the chest. It wasn’t painful — thankfully, Daley doesn’t want to hurt a sportswriter half his size — but it was powerful. And quick.

“You’ve got to time it,” he said, repeating the motion, “and it’s all split-second timing.”

That size-strength combination Daley so effectively demonstrated is part of the reason he has seen playing time so early on.

“Tremendous athleticism. Very smart young man,” Rivera said. “Passionate about playing the game. He’s got a stoutness about him too that goes very well with athleticism, especially at the left tackle position when a big guy tries to bull you.

“We still feel he’s a young guy that can help us, and right now, we do think he’s our best option at left tackle.”

That may be the case for now, but Carolina’s offensive line must settle into a more consistent rhythm if the team has a realistic chance of making the playoffs. Little was present at practice on Wednesday for the first time since re-entering the concussion protocol, which means he is finally advancing back to being able to play.

“It’s all part of the protocol that he’s in and part of the steps that he has to take,” Rivera said. “It was good to see him out there moving around.”

When Little does return, does that send Daley to the bench? And then what happens with Williams, who also filled in for right guard Trai Turner while he missed time with a high ankle sprain?

Realistically, anything is possible that prevents a recurrence of Sunday’s disaster. The Panthers gave up seven sacks overall, including six in the first half; and no, they can’t all be blamed on quarterback Kyle Allen holding the ball too long, although he did take blame after the game.

“There were definitely a couple of sacks that were completely on me,” Allen said Sunday. “I don’t think that matters (who’s at left tackle). We have a lot of good players that can play the left-tackle position and the right-tackle position.”

When Little returns, he should reclaim the left tackle job from Daley. That would send both Daley and Williams to the bench as depth players and jumbo-package options. Then the interior of the offensive line that has mostly stayed intact — Greg Van Roten at left guard, Matt Paradis at center and Turner at right guard — will at last have a chance to meld with Little and right tackle Taylor Moton.

There’s no guarantee that will solve the offensive-line issues, but it does appear to be the Panthers’ best option going forward.

But for now, it’s all about Daley and putting him in the best situation to succeed.

“Hearing that (Rivera said I’m the best option now) made me want to work 10 times harder,” Daley said. “I was not (aware), honestly, so now I’ve got to work 10 times harder to prove that I can play left tackle.”

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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