Russell Okung ‘here to win … right now’ with Panthers, not rebuild

After facing a life-threatening pulmonary embolism during the 2019 offseason, left tackle Russell Okung didn’t agree to be traded to the Carolina Panthers to be part of a total rebuild under first-year coach Matt Rhule.

“I made it really clear, I’m not here to just rebuild,” Okung said Tuesday during his first news conference since the early March trade that sent Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner to the Los Angeles Chargers. “I’m here to win, and win right now.

The Panthers are coming off consecutive losing seasons. They hired Rhule, known for rebuilding Temple and Baylor on the college level, to replace Ron Rivera, who was fired.

The Panthers released franchise quarterback Cam Newton and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly surprisingly retired in January at the age of 28, leaving a huge hole in the middle of the defense.

Everything points to a total rebuild, but Okung doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t really see us as rebuilding,” Okung said. “The time is always now to go out there and compete, and put my best effort on the field and do my best.

“So I’m not thinking rebuild at all. If anything, those that are being brought in are going to make us better, a more talented team.”nike authentic nfl jerseys

Okung, 31, pointed to the acquisition of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was 5-0 as a starter in New Orleans last season while Drew Brees recovered from a thumb injury. He said that Christian McCaffrey, now the highest-paid running back in NFL history, is “the real deal.”4

He sees talent across the board, even on the retooled offensive line after the Panthers agreed to trade Turner for him on March 4.

The NFL is on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, which Okung calls the “great equalizer.” He’s not concerned about the lack of on-the-field offseason programs, reminding he was a part of the lockout before the 2011 season.

“We weren’t able to come back to the facility until the latter part of July,” Okung said. “So it’s OK. It’s OK if we miss this time.”

Okung missed plenty of time last offseason after he “looked death right in the face” in June after doctors diagnosed him with a pulmonary embolism due to blood clots in his lungs. He was placed on the NFL’s reserve/non-football illness list to start the season and wasn’t activated until Oct. 26.

In his eyes, he doesn’t have time for a rebuild.

“I just want to cherish life,” Okung said. “I could have easily died out there on the field. I’m glad I’m healthy enough to continue to play. It is what I love.”official stitched nfl jerseys

Okung has one season remaining on the four-year, $53 million deal he signed with the Chargers in 2017. He’ll count $13 million against the 2020 salary cap.

But he doesn’t look at this as the beginning of the end of his NFL career, which started in 2010 when Seattle made him the sixth overall pick out of Oklahoma State.

What his health scare taught him is he still loves the game, and Okung still wants to play for years to come — maybe even as long as 42-year-old Tom Brady.

“Until that goes away, I won’t stop,” Okung said of his love of football. “I won’t stop doing what I love to do. I can put three, five, 10 years on it. I’m coming after Tom Brady. I want to play that long. No, not that long. Long enough.”