Five-year deal in hand, Matt Kalil out to change course from his first five NFL years

With a clean bill of health and one of free agency's most eyebrow-raising contracts in hand, Matt Kalil is on a mission to turn his career around in Carolina.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When explaining why he picked the Panthers in free agency over the Vikings or any other team in need of help at offensive tackle, Matt Kalil said something surprising, amid mentions of playing with his older brother Ryan and having known the organization since he was in high school.

“I wanted to secure my future with the money, but at the same time this is it for me,” Kalil said. “This is my last contract. I want to go back to the Pro Bowl.”

Hold up. Kalil is only 27. This five-year, $55 million deal with Carolina is it?

“I don’t know,” Kalil said smiling. “Five years is a long time. I’m 27. I don’t know, that’s just me.”

Forgive Kalil if he’s lost track of time because he’s lived in his past three NFL seasons in dog years. After a standout rookie season in 2012 after arriving in Minnesota as the No. 4 pick, Kalil regressed in ’14, struggled again in ’15 and went on injured reserve last September after surgery to repair a hip injury. His contract was widely panned as the worst free-agent signing of the off-season, though some of that price tag owes to a thin tackle market.

What the Panthers are banking on, and what Kalil’s older brother and head coach are already seeing, is the younger Kalil getting back to his Pro Bowl form now that he’s healthy, surrounded by new scenery and with a new position coach in John Matsko.

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“He’s the first coach I’ve been with who hones in on everything from a technical standpoint: where your hands are, where your eyes are looking, where your feet are supposed to be,” Kalil said of Matsko. “You don’t think he’s watching but he’s constantly watching, and if you don’t do something right he’ll come and correct you.

“It’s that hands-on coaching that I think I play better with, and obviously he’s had some people that he’s turned into great players. That’s something I saw, and going into the second half of my career I wanted the best opportunity to play the best possible football I can play.”

Tuesday was Kalil’s first live action since signing with Carolina in March. His recovery from the hip surgery took about six months, and the Panthers eased him into off-season work. For too long he has played the “maintenance/survival game,” and now that he’s back healthy, he says football is fun again. His next step is getting back on that rookie-season trajectory.

“He’s always been a strong, physical, athletic tackle,” said Ryan Kalil, the older brother entering his 11th season with the Panthers. “I think he would tell you there are inconsistencies in his game that he’s wanted to get better at, and all that’s been is technique. That’s stuff that you can fix. You can’t teach a guy size and strength and athleticism.

“The technique stuff, we’ve got one of the best coaches in the business, so I think that was a big reason for him coming here, more so than his annoying big brother.”

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Other observations from Panthers OTAs

• Right tackle Michael Oher remains in the concussion protocol and has not been to OTAs. Panthers coach Ron Rivera won’t discuss players in the protocol and didn’t say whether Oher would be at minicamp in mid-June, though he did note that minicamp is mandatory.

• Cam Newton still isn’t throwing the ball after shoulder surgery that took place March 30. He has been going through quarterback drills that involve footwork but does not attempt any throws. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson has taken all the No. 1 reps this off-season.

• Even if Newton could throw, he still wouldn’t have thrown to first-round pick Christian McCaffrey just yet. McCaffrey remains at Stanford, which is on the quarter system, and won’t finish until the second week of June. Panthers’ coaches are communicating with him via Skype, and he has the playbook on a tablet in Palo Alto. He should be back in town for minicamp on June 13.

• Speaking of McCaffrey, Rivera was adamant that McCaffrey’s addition won’t affect or limit Jonathan Stewart’s role on the team. He envisions both backs on the field at the same time (I would imagine this would especially come into play on third-and-short to -intermediate plays). But Stewart, who just signed a one-year extension and will likely hold the franchise’s all-time rushing record by the end of September, is clearly the top guy in the backfield.

• I tweeted this last week and it remains true: Kelvin Benjamin is clearly not in game shape, but the photos circulating of him don’t do him justice. Rivera said some of the criticism at Benjamin has been unfair because it’s still May, and it’s just voluntary workouts. But this is part of a bigger picture. Benjamin struggled with his weight at Florida State and then again with the Panthers in 2015 before getting back into shape just before he tore his ACL at training camp. So this is at least the third time since high school that the former first-rounder from a loaded receiving class has had problems keeping his weight under control.