Patient Panthers giving first-round pick Otah time to heal

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As his Carolina teammates ran plays Friday, Panthers rookie Jeff Otah was alone on an adjacent field, carrying a medicine ball, sidestepping across the field and pushing a tackling dummy.

 More than a month after the Panthers made perhaps their biggest draft gamble by trading away next year's first-round pick to get Otah, they've yet to see their new offensive tackle in a team drill.

Blame it on a nearly 10-month-old left ankle injury.

"I'm feeling real good right now," Otah said as sweat dripped from his brow. "I'm basically just listening to what the trainers are telling me to do and trying my best to get my ankle back to 100 percent."

Panthers coach John Fox insisted he's not alarmed that Otah is still recovering from a high-ankle sprain suffered in an August preseason practice at Pittsburgh. Otah didn't allow a sack and didn't miss a game at Pitt in 2007 despite playing in pain. He then had little time to rest as he prepared for the draft.

"He played the season and then all of a sudden you're getting ready for the combine," Fox said. "At some point the best healer is time. We're just more interested in that. ... We'd prefer him to be out there like all players, but on the other hand we want him healthy when we go to (training) camp and start up full speed."

And for what the Panthers gave away to get the 6-foot-6, 330-pound giant, they need Otah at full strength this season.

Otah is supposed to be the final piece to an offseason overhaul of the offensive line. Starters Justin Hartwig and Mike Wahle were released. The Panthers made Jordan Gross their franchise player, then moved him from right to left tackle. Travelle Wharton was re-signed, then moved from left tackle to left guard. Ryan Kalil moved from backup to starting center and Keydrick Vincent was signed to play right guard.

The Panthers eyed Otah as their answer at right tackle early in the draft process despite his late introduction to football.

A native of Nigeria, Otah was seven when he moved to the United States and played little in high school. He played two years of junior college before transferring to Pittsburgh. Last season he moved into a sure first-round pick despite the tender ankle.

"My team needed me so I was willing to go out there and play and suck it up," Otah said.

Fox personally attended Otah's pre-draft workout at Pittsburgh, and the Panthers were determined to make a deal for Otah moments after they took Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart with the 13th pick.

After numerous calls, Philadelphia was willing to make a deal. But it was costly.

The Panthers gave up their second- and fourth-round picks this year and their first-round pick in 2009 to the Eagles for the 19th pick. It was a bold move for a team that hasn't reached the playoffs since 2005.

"You're always going to feel a little bit of pressure being a first round pick, but I don't take it personally that they traded for me," Otah said. "If I got drafted in the fifth round I'd still be the same way, coming in here and working my butt off."

But so far Otah has been jogging on the side as veteran Jeremy Bridges works with the first team at right tackle. Otah isn't sure if he'll be able to practice over the final two weeks of optional workouts.

Meanwhile, Otah is watching and learning, while the Panthers hope their gamble produces a dominant tackle and helps end a two-year playoff drought.

"I'm just learning that it's a fast game. You've got to really know what you're doing," Otah said. "You've got to play fast and your technique is really important. These are professionals, so you've really got to bring your game when you're out there."

Notes: WR Dwayne Jarrett (illness) missed Friday's workout, but Fox had rare praise for Jarrett after a poor rookie season. "He's been impressive," Fox said. ... Tyler Brayton worked out with the first-team at defensive end ahead of Charles Johnson. ... The Panthers resume workouts on Monday.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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