And I’m not referring to the wholesale changes that are on the way as Ron Rivera makes his mark. As hard as it may be to believe, there is some talent on that roster.
That talent extends beyond the the guys that we’re already familiar with. Everyone knows Jon Beason is a dynamic linebacker and that Jordan Gross is one of the best left tackles in the NFC. We’re even starting to see Ryan Kalil get some press as one of the best young centers in the game now that he has received the franchise tag.
But there’s another group on the rise. We’re looking at a quietly dangerous Charles Johnson, who generated more QB Disruptions than any other defensive end, and at an emerging playmaker in James Anderson, who finished 3rd overall in our 4-3 outside linebacker rankings. One more is an offensive lineman – who held down two positions ably – by the name of Geoff Schwartz.
Hang on. Geoff Schwartz?
A lineman from an offense that ran the ball inconsistently, and failed to keep its quarterback upright?
The very same.
A little background on the man out of Oregon, listed at 332 lbs. Drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, Geoff got his first offensive action in Week 13 of the 2009 season … as an additional tight end – the stuff dreams are made of.
But fast forward a week, and with Jeff Otah knocked out for the year, the backup lineman became the starting right tackle for the last three weeks of the season.
He performed admirably in those starts, giving up just one sack and three pressures in 90 pass-blocking snaps. His run blocking, however, earned a grade of -3.0, failing to inspire much hope heading into the 2010 season.
Tackling An Opportunity Head On
As can sometimes be the case, a small injury scare can turn into something far more significant. So it proved to be for the Panthers’ franchise right tackle, Jeff Otah, who missed the entire year despite never seeming that far from returning. That development thrust Schwartz into the starting lineup from day one of the 2010 season, a spot he would not relinquish; Schwartz stayed on the field for every Panthers offensive snap.
For the first five weeks, Geoff lined up as the right tackle. He had some struggles, most notably against Tampa Bay where Tim Crowder beat him on far too regular a basis, but he was playing a darnn sight better than Otah had in 2009, and was superb in Carolina’s narrow defeat to New Orleans. Allowing no pressures in that game, Schwartz controlled Alex Brown in every area and even mauled Sedrick Ellis on a couple of plays as he got down the line to best the former first round pick.
Given an opportunity by chance, Schwartz was looking like anything but a problem at the right tackle spot.
On Your Guard
The Panthers did, however, have a problem next to Schwartz. Right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau was finding the going tough and had already given up three sacks through five weeks. So, the backup-turned-starting tackle kicked in to right guard, and Garry Williams moved into the starting lineup.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of replacing players who are performing badly by shifting those playing well from their preferred positions – you’re risking making both positions worse. Half of that was certainly true in this case as Garry Williams struggled throughout the year.
But the other half? Well that worked out and then some.
Schwartz experienced another teething period that began when he faced the 49ers’ 3-4 defense. The Panthers’ new right guard struggled with Takeo Spikes and looked, for the first time in his career, worryingly out of his depth.
Slowly though, he got to grips with the position, highlighted by fine performances near the season’s end where he produced three perfect games in pass protection.
And then there was his run blocking. Though not consistent (he ended the season with his worst performance of the year in Atlanta), he did find some joy against the big teams. In Week 14, also against Atlanta, he had two pull blocks that saw him get to the second level, take out a linebacker and cornerback, and give his running back plenty of room to scamper for big yardage.
Two weeks later, as the Steelers put a beating on Carolina, Schwartz three times laid successful down blocks on Casey Hampton (yes the Casey Hampton) to create running room. This was offset by only one negative run blocking play (again struggling to get out on a linebacker.)
The Panthers stumbled onto something in Schwartz’ first full year as a starter- much as they did when the departure of Julius Peppers forced Charles Johnson into the lineup. They fortuitously found a guy who could play right tackle and right guard in impressive fashion, impressive enough in fact, that it earned him serious consideration when we announced our Pro Bowl team.
In the end, he didn’t get the nod, and he’s not perfect – it’s clear he has some work to do when he finds himself one on one with linebackers – but, in a year that was disappointing for linemen in general, we saw the emergence of one who is certainly worth keeping an eye on.
As his name grows, perhaps this excellent season won’t remain a secret.
I’m Khaled Elsayed, and Geoff Schwartz is your first secret superstar of the 2010 season.