CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At 6-foot-6, 318 pounds, Andrew Norwell is a difficult person to miss.
And yet, that’s precisely what happened during the 2014 NFL Draft — when all 32 teams passed on the college prospect.
Now, there’s absolutely no way to overlook Norwell, who emerged as a star at left guard last season for the Carolina Panthers and finished as one of the top players at his position.
Norwell is also a key reason why the offensive line has the capacity to be downright good, sooner than later — something nobody would have suspected this time last year.
The Ohio State product, a three-year college starter and two-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, watched seven rounds of the 2014 draft go by without hearing his name called. A few days later, Norwell signed as a free agent with the Panthers.
Unbeknownst to the Panthers at the time, one post-draft phone call might have secured their future at left guard.
In 2014, Norwell started at left guard in eight of his last nine games; the other outing included a start at right guard. How skilled was the free-agent rookie? Of his last six games at left guard, Norwell graded out analytically speaking as the fourth-best left guard in the NFL.
For good measure, Norwell also didn’t allow a single sack and only one quarterback hit.
"That surprises me, because I never read up on myself," says Norwell of his stats. "I stay away from that stuff."
On the whole, the Panthers had a rough 2014 campaign along the offensive line, with the left side — namely tackle Byron Bell at tackle and guard Amini Silatolu — grading out poorly. As a unit, the O-line ranked at or near the bottom in every analytical statistical category.
Then, injuries started to happen; and before he knew it, Norwell went from not dressing for games to starting against the Seahawks.
"It was an amazing experience," recalls Norwell. "Playing the defending champs and it being my first start against Seattle, it was an incredible experience. And with it being a home game, my family got to come down and watch me. It was exciting. …
"I was a little nervous the first series, but after that, I was like, ‘Let’s play ball.’"
Norwell was a steadying force, giving the Panthers something they hadn’t had in numerous years at that position â quality starts.
Though he was undrafted and only a rookie, Norwell’s success wasn’t a major shocker.
"I stepped into that role and I took it over," he said. "It was humbling going through this process with it being my rookie year and being able to be so successful at my job. All the hard work paid off."
Unlike so many undrafted players, Norwell didn’t use it as motivation. He didn’t have the perpetual chip on his shoulder as a result.
"That stuff doesn’t matter now," he said. "It’s all about now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I started half the season and I worked my way up. Nothing was given to me. I like hard work and that’s where it’s gotten me."
Still, it took Norwell some time to get acclimated to life in the NFL.
"Just processing everything (was the hardest part)," he said. "You’ve got to calm down. It’s kind of overwhelming at first, but then you realize it’s just football and that you’ve been doing this your whole life. And once I got settled in and felt confident, good things happened to me."
Now, there’s no holding him back. He’s had a full year in the system and looks to be even more of an anchor on the line this year.
"A lot of people didn’t have their eye on me during the season, because I wasn’t dressing the first six games," Norwell says. "But in the seventh game, an O-lineman went down and I stepped up. The coaches saw that I can play this game and that I’m very competitive at what I do."