CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/CharlotteObserver) - Like it or not, the facts are the facts: Two of the Carolina Panthers' eight draft picks over the weekend were spent on offensive skill positions, and the other six focused on defense.
None were spent on the interior offensive line, which might have surprised some because the Panthers lost All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell in free agency and have a veteran Pro Bowl center, Ryan Kalil, retiring after the 2018 season.
I asked general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera in their final draft press conference if the way they drafted to that point sent a message about their comfort level in the offensive line, particularly at left guard.
"I think there's going to be a tremendous amount of competition, I really do," said Rivera. "The one thing I don't think anyone should feel is comfortable with their opportunities. ...These guys have got to step up. We've got a young group of guys that show some flashes of ability, but now we want to see it in action and give everyone an opportunity."
But does Rivera feel that Norwell's replacement is currently on the roster?
"Potentially, we think so," said Rivera. "We think Taylor (Moton) is a solid football player, that's why we drafted him. He's a big, physical guy. We like what Tyler (Larsen) brings to the table. Tyler actually came to us as a guard, it just so happened that he had some center ability. Greg Van Roten is another guy that has played center/guard for us, a guy that may get some opportunities for us as well."
Rivera also cited the experience of backup Amini Silatolu in Carolina's system, and mentioned Blaine Clausell as "another young guy who we think has an opportunity."
Moton doesn't have any live NFL snaps at guard (a rookie guard wouldn't either, yet, of course). The Panthers spent last season hiding Moton as a depth piece and rarely-used extra tackle in the "jumbo" package. They also maintained that he was taking tackle repetitions in practice late in the year, when right guard Trai Turner was hurt.
Rivera didn't mention free agent guard acquisition and former Minnesota backup Jeremiah Sirles, but I'd expect him to be in the mix to compete as well.
But I wouldn't be surprised to see Larsen at left guard when the season opens in September, with Moton competing for time. We haven't seen much of that, either, because Larsen had to be Carolina's emergency center in 2016 and started in place of Kalil for much of 2017.
Carolina also dedicated a large percentage of its undrafted free agent signings to the position. There's some promising talent in a group of names that includes center/guard Brendan Mahon, guard Taylor Hearn and center/guard Kyle Bosch, and the competition among them in camp will be high.
NBC/Rotoworld analyst Evan Silva pointed out in his C-plus rating of Carolina's draft that the lack of attention in the draft to the interior offensive line is especially problematic because new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme "will ask (quarterback) Cam Newton to take deeper drops in (Turner's) vertical system."
If that does end up the case in Carolina, Silva's is a noteworthy concern because the center and the guards control the depth of the pocket. Whoever plugs in at left guard won't have all that much live experience, though will benefit from working next to Kalil at center.
I'd also imagine that Carolina will continue to explore the same quick checkdowns and "layup" passes as they did last season with Christian McCaffrey (this year adding first-round pick D.J. Moore and slot receiver Jarius Wright to the mix). That can alleviate the pressure on a line.
Still, it was surprising to see the Panthers not add a stout lineman in the draft, especially one who specializes in run blocking.
They didn't add a stout running back, either. Three-year backup Cameron Artis-Payne has untapped potential and the Panthers will likely still add depth there, including intriguing undrafted free agent running back/receiver/quarterback Reggie Bonnafon.
The Panthers' draft addressed a lot of needs, sure, but two big questions linger.
Carolina has spruced up its receivers room, but will Newton have adequate protection to use his new weapons?