3rd round pick Evan Mathis
Last year, the Panthers had a problem. Going into the season, it appeared that the offensive line, which had been hit with both defections and retirement, had been repaired. Adam Meadows came down from Indy. Jordon Gross was moving to his natural position at LT. Tuten Reyes was going to be at least a decent temporary replacement for the retiring Kevin Donnelly. And they had a good backup in Rich Tylski. So what was the problem? Things don’t always turn out the way you want them to.
After attempting to make a go of it, Meadows decided that it was time to hang up the cleats. He at least did the honorable thing in returning the signing bonus he received. How many times do you actually see that in today’s “me first” NFL? Reyes was hampered by various injuries throughout the season and never really played up to the potential that Coach Fox expected. Gross, although in his “natural position” was consistently getting beaten to the inside. Some analysts say that he was dropping back too far and too much to the outside, leaving the inside move for the defensive end available.
But you knew the Panthers were in trouble when they brought actor/football player/Swiss cheese offensive lineman Matt Willig in to play right tackle. Not only did Willig not provide the type of protection Jake Delhomme needed to set up in the pocket, but throughout the season, the Panthers had to constantly stack either tight ends or fullbacks on the right side to assist when players roared past Willig at the snap. The worst came during the game against Denver, when during an apparent misunderstanding Willig threw a flag late in the game in the direction of a referee, causing the Panthers to get a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and eliminating the chance of making a game tying field goal.
The good news, Panther fans, is that was last year. This is a brand new season coming up and once again the dawn of spring brings the promise of new hope and new possibilities.
In other words, the Panthers have learned from their mistakes and now have a more formidable offensive line to both protect Jake Delhomme and create holes for the running attack.
Perhaps this will be the year in which there will not be the curse of the black cat.
Perhaps this year the injury bug will skip Charlotte and move on to another more deserving team.
Perhaps the suspicion of steroids that has become like a veil of bad karma will be lifted from the shoulders of our lineman.
In any event, there have been some new additions that fit in quite nicely to Coach Fox’s run first philosophy.
Mike Wahle – He brings in the reputation as a solid run blocker and have been called by many in the sport as the steal of free agency. The good thing about Wahle is that he’s young, he hasn’t had any injury problems, he already has leadership experience and he’s versatile. Currently Wahle will begin over at left guard but if needed, can be moved to the tackle position. Wahle will open up more holes for the Panthers and bring much needed support to the run game.
Geoff Hangartner – The big Texas A&M lineman was drafted in the fifth round by the Panthers in this year’s draft. Has experience in both playing center and tackle. Earned All-Big 12 honors while in college. Geoff will add much needed depth to the offensive line.
Evan Mathis – A four year starter on the University of Alabama team that has produced several good offensive linemen in the NFL. Mel Kiper Jr. stated that Mathis was "one of the top 10 steals of the draft". Chris Mortensen said that Mathis would be an elite OL down the line. Expect Mathis to make an attempt and a starting job this season if Reyes doesn’t work out.
Joe Berger – Berger is an interesting pick from a smaller school. Repetitions and strength will help Berger become more of a role player but for now, he adds depth to the line.
What does it mean: The Carolina Panthers were ranked 28th in average rushing yards last year. With a healthy lineup, expect those numbers to improve greatly. They were also ranked 9th in sacks allowed by a team. Granted, it may be easy to put the blame on back up players, the entire line, if healthy, will provide Jake Delhomme more time and more protection to avoid being taken down. This is very important for the future of the team. Towards the end of last year, Jake started showing the toll that the sacks were taking on his body. Overall, the Panthers should be in much better shape going into the 2005 season with both brand new and old bodies manning the trenches and setting up the rest of the team for success.