Cowboys' youth, Panthers' O-line concerns in opener
The Carolina Panthers begin the 2018 regular season Sunday at home against the Dallas Cowboys coming off a successful preseason but with major question marks on their offensive line.
For Dallas, the most significant question concerns its youth after losing some big-name players after last season. In April, the Cowboys released wide receiver Dez Bryant. Then, in early May, tight end Jason Witten announced he was retiring to take a seat in the broadcaster's booth for Monday Night Football. Dallas then made a surprise move by cutting reliable veteran kicker Dan Bailey on Sept. 1.
The Cowboys will turn to NFL rookie Brett Maher as its kicker. Maher, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection at Nebraska, spent the 2014 through 2017 seasons playing in the Canadian Football League before catching on with Dallas this time around. He was with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2013.
Maher, who made a 57-yard field goal in the preseason finale against the Houston Texans on Thursday, hit 78 percent of his field-goal tries in the CFL.
As a result of these notable moves for Dallas, the Cowboys are now a very young team with only two players over the age of 30 -- linebacker Sean Lee and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur.
Jason Garrett, entering his ninth season as Dallas' head coach, said the Cowboys are embracing the youth on a team he believes can be successful, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, a strong offensive line and an improving defense, led by Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
"We still feel really good about some of the younger players who have been good players for us up to this point," Garrett said. "You think about the leadership and the production of the guys on our offensive line, our young quarterback, our running back, those guys have been really good players for us and they're not that old. I think you can say some similar things about guys on the defensive side of the ball. So that's really what you want to be. You don't just want to be a young team. You want to be a young good team.
"And we have some guys who are young and haven't been tested quite as much. But we feel like they have the stuff. We're excited about seeing them play and seeing this group come together. We're embracing the youth of our team."
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has embraced the leadership of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who was brought in to help upgrade an offense that has been erratic at times despite Newton's natural abilities. Their relationship might be for naught if Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey do not have quality blockers in front of him.
The offensive line was hit hard by injuries in the preseason. Left tackle Taylor Moton has been praised for his versatility and he will get a chance to display that in his second season after Matt Kalil was put on injured reserve.
Kalil started all 16 regular-season games last year for a team that ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing. The Panthers are hoping he will be able to return this season.
"We're putting Matt on injured reserve to give him time to fully rehab the knee," Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said. "We decided to make the move now so he's eligible to come back after eight games."
It's quite possible that right tackle Daryl Williams won't be ready for the opener. He suffered an MCL and patella injury in late July, so that would automatically complicate things.
Ryan Kalil dealt with a neck injury that lingered last year.
It appears Amini Silatolu, who would have been a starter at left guard, won't be available at the start of the season so this could put further kinks in the production of this unit. If Ryan Kalil, who is considered one of the team leaders, returns to form, then there's reason to be encouraged that this group can excel.
The Panthers kept offensive lineman Brendan Mahon on the roster as the only undrafted player on the 53-player list. Mahon, who played at Penn State, is valued for his versatility because he is capable of playing at guard or tackle.
Mahon's arrival has brought comparisons to another versatile lineman -- Greg Van Roten. Van Roten was a surprise addition to the 2017 roster and now might be in line to start as the left guard. Van Roten's versatility came in handy last year at center. With a rash of injuries in the preseason along the offensive front, players such as Van Roten have become more valuable to the Panthers.
"It has been a work in progress trying to find the answers to the guys that were injured," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said.
Updated September 5, 2018