CHARLOTTE — For all the uncertainty about the Panthers at the moment, the one thing that’s known is that the offensive line will likely look very different next year.
As it pertains to their current state, the Panthers are getting some late looks at a pair of rookies to see how they might fit in.
Brady Christensen has started the last two games at left tackle and will again this week with Cameron Erving going on IR. That was as much out of necessity as preference, because there’s still an active question as to whether he’s a guard or tackle long-term. He’s not thinking of it in those terms, though.
Asked which position he saw himself at, Christensen replied: “That’s a hard question for me to answer. I definitely see me as a starter, wherever that may be, and that’s kind of where I’m at.”
The future of the third-round pick will likely be determined by what they do in free agency and in the draft (where they’re currently sitting in the sixth overall spot). Find a cornerstone left tackle in either market, and Christensen likely slides inside to one of the guard spots, potentially solving another problem area.
He said he’s willing to trust his coaches on the best plan for him, though they’ve been encouraged by his recent work at tackle.
“I think we’re getting a good picture of it,” Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said of Christensen’s prospects outside. “I think we were pleased with the growth from the Tampa game to the New Orleans game. It’s a whole different deal playing in a dome, on the road, silent count. I thought he certainly held his own. And it also shows him the things he needs to work on moving forward, to improve. But I’ve been pleased with where he’s at.”
Christensen has experience at tackle from college, but doesn’t have the prototypical length of other NFL tackles, and that has precedent in Panthers history. Another former third-rounder who played left tackle in college at a high level, Travelle Wharton, also had 32-1/4-inch arms. While he played tackle capably at times, Wharton found his best fit at left guard next to Jordan Gross on some of the team’s best lines.
So Christensen isn’t obsessing about the position-switching now (he’s also started at right tackle and right guard, and filled in at left guard), knowing this will likely resolve itself.
“I think both are needed in the NFL, I really do, and I’m happy to do both,” he said. “Obviously it would be best to nail down one position and really get great at that. But at the same time, you can get great at all the positions, because it’s the offensive line and it’s similar techniques.”
Christensen has been part of the rotation most of the year, while sixth-rounder Deonte Brown has taken a different path.
He’s played one snap of offense this year, and was inactive last week, though Rhule said they hope to see him in some capacity this week against the Buccaneers.
Brown said that even though he hasn’t played much this year (and a midseason knee injury slowed him a bit), he’s confident that he can fit in here.
“Honestly, I learned that I do belong here, if that makes sense,” Brown said of the lessons of his rookie year. “I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges I’ve had personally, is believing I can play and play at a high level, and play good. I’ve got more and more confidence in my ability to play and be good.”
Brown talked about the challenges of playing as a reserve after a decorated career at Alabama, but he’s also learning how to move differently. Brown came to the Senior Bowl at 364 pounds, and he’s worked to get himself to the 335 range over the course of the season. He talked about his “weight-loss journey,” and said he sees no downside to being smaller now.
“I feel more powerful, more explosive, so I really haven’t had no complaints,” he said. “There are no disadvantages. The only thing it’s done has helped me. I feel like I can sustain blocks better. I am able to perform athletic moves better, and for a longer period of time.
“That was my biggest thing coming in was sustaining what I can do throughout the whole game, and not just in spurts.”
Brown also knows that as he competes for playing time, versatility can only help him. He said he wants to spend some time this offseason learning to play center as well.
Neither he nor Christensen can know at the moment where they’ll fit in next year, and until the dust settles on what is expected to be a busy offseason at their position, no one can.