Ray Brown, the Panthers’ offensive line coach, was sitting at home in Charlotte, enjoying the off-season, when his cellphone rang. He saw that the call was from Trai Turner, his 23-year-old right guard. It’s rare for Brown to hear from any of his troops in the off-season, so he wondered: Was something wrong? Was Trai in some sort of trouble? Could Brown even answer it with all the rules limiting coach-player contact when practices were not in session?
Brown picked up the call, and Turner got right to the point. “What does a third-year, Pro Bowl player have to do to get better?” Turner asked.
Brown, who played 19 years in the NFL with four teams and won a Super Bowl with the Redskins, let out a sigh of relief. “The fact that you called and asked,” he replied, “means you’re already on the right page.”
A third-round pick from LSU, Turner has allowed just one sack in his first two seasons, and he has lofty ambitions for his career. “I would love to make my All-Pro debut this season,” he says. “I would love, at the end of my career, to put on a [Hall of Fame] gold jacket. That is one of my goals, to be the best.”
Brown’s boss, running game coordinator John Matsko, has worked in the league for 25 years, and he gives praise sparingly. So when the man who has watched former pupils Orlando Pace, Willie Roaf and Will Shields don those gold jackets was asked about Turner’s lofty career aspirations, he grumbled a bit but couldn’t hold back.
“He can definitely do it,” says Matsko. “He’s got the makeup. He’s got what Pace had, what Willie Roaf had, and what [Carolina center Ryan] Kalil and [tight end Greg] Olsen have now: There’s a desire, a fire that you can feel from those guys. When they show up at practice, you can feel it. Turner’s got it. He’s only going to get better.”
Right now, the consensus best guard in the league is Marshal Yanda of the Ravens. Turner is borderline obsessed with Yanda. He’s constantly asking Panthers left tackle Michael Oher, who played right tackle next to Yanda in Baltimore, how Yanda became so good. “He wants to know how he practiced, lifted, watched films, his workouts in the off-season,” says Oher. “Trai’s a big fan of Marshal’s, and I told [Marshal] that. He liked that. I see a lot of similarities.”
In many ways Yanda, 31, is the present at the guard position and Turner is the future. Both are 6' 3" and were drafted in the same round. Yanda (305 pounds) has exceptional short-area quickness and playing strength, and he uses that to dominate in the running game and perform difficult reach blocks. When pass-blocking, he simply does not give way. While Turner (310 pounds) doesn’t quite have Yanda’s polish in the first two areas (that comes with time), he has a higher ceiling because he’s a better athlete: Turner ran a hand-timed 4.84 in the 40 at the combine, while Yanda ran a 5.15.
Yanda’s skills are ideal for the Ravens’ traditional offense, but he’d be hard-pressed to excel with the Panthers, who have the most diverse attack in the league. On one play they can run the read option, requiring Turner to quickly jump to the second level and pick off a linebacker, and on the next run a version of the trap perfected by Don Shula’s Dolphins, in which Turner has to pull and slam an unblocked lineman.
“He’s a scheme fit for just about anything,” says Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman. “You can run the power game inside, and he can pull and trap and do all those kinds of things. He’s got everything you're looking for.”
Turner showed off his elite athleticism in the second quarter of a Week 13 game at New Orleans when he pulled outside to the right of running back Jonathan Stewart. By the time Stewart gained his 22 yards, Turner had put one Saints safety on his back (Kenny Vaccaro) and another out-of-bounds (Jairus Byrd) while on the run.
Turner’s pass blocking isn’t too shabby either—just ask three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt of the Texans. With 11:29 remaining in the second quarter in a Week 2 matchup last year, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw a perfect 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. in the left corner of the end zone. Turner’s block was better. Watt’s bull rush knocked Turner back three feet, but then he stuck his left foot in the ground, got his shoulder into Watt’s right armpit, lifted him up and body-slammed him into the ground for a pancake block.
If Turner keeps making blocks like that, he might just realize all his goals, including a gold jacket of his own.