Carolina Panthers: Greg Olsen
Here's how I see the top 22 as the Panthers begin focusing on the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay:
- LT Byron Bell -- Beat out Nate Chandler for the job halfway through training camp. Still concerns me the way teams have bull-rushed him.
- LG Amini Silatolu -- Never challenged as he reclaimed the job he had before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in the fourth game last season.
- C Ryan Kalil -- A four-time Pro Bowler. Nothing more needs to be said.
- RG Chris Scott -- Rookie Trai Turner started the first two preseason games and still could be the starter, but a groin injury has sidelined him the last two games. Ideally, Turner is Carolina's guy. But the lack of practice this close to the opener has to be concerning.
- RT Nate Chandler -- There's still a chance the Panthers could go with veteran Garry Williams, but they like having him available as a backup for relief at guard and tackle.
- RB DeAngelo Williams -- He may be 31, but according to running backs coach Jim Skipper he hasn't lost a step. He also has the other half of "Double Trouble'' back in Jonathan Stewart to push him.
- FB Mike Tolbert -- He has a lot of nicknames making fun of his round physique. You can just call him solid.
- TE Greg Olsen -- He missed Thursday's game to be with his son, recovering from his third open heart surgery after being born in 2012 with a congenital heart defect. But the team's leading receiver with 73 catches last season will be ready for Tampa.
- WR Kelvin Benjamin -- The first-round draft pick out of Florida State, at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, already has earned the praise of receivers coach Ricky Proehl as a bona fide No. 1 wideout.
- WR Jerricho Cotchery -- The Panthers brought him and Jason Avant in to replace the veteran leadership of Steve Smith, who was cut in March. Despite the lack of preseason production, the team is pleased.
- QB Cam Newton -- Ankle surgery in March. Fractured ribs a week ago. No problem. The two-time Pro Bowl selection says he will be in the starting lineup against the Bucs.
- LDE Charles Johnson -- A hamstring injury kept him out of three of four preseason games, the last more for precautionary reasons. His resume includes 54 sacks, third on the team's all-time list.
- LDT Colin Cole -- Rivera calls him a "space eater.'' Cole prefers "Monster in the Middle,'' or something like that. Whatever, he's rock solid.
- RDT Star Lotulelei -- Still surprised he didn't get more consideration for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. Needs a few more sacks than the three he had to garner more attention.
- RDE Greg Hardy -- The 2013 Pro Bowl selection led the team in sacks last season with 15. Despite his legal issues, he's playing for a new contract in 2015, which is good for Carolina.
- SLB Chase Blackburn -- Many have second-year player A.J. Klein beating him out -- and he might -- but Blackburn's experience and consistency could be too valuable.
- MLB Luke Kuechly -- If you haven't heard, he is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
- WLB Thomas Davis -- He should have been in the Pro Bowl last season.
- LCB -- Antoine Cason -- Resurrecting a career that began with him playing for Rivera at San Diego after a one-year vacation in Arizona.
- RCB Melvin White -- A year later he's still undrafted and still the best option here. But Josh Norman is waiting in the wings for either corner spot.
- FS Thomas DeCoud -- The Panthers signed him specifically to replace Mike Mitchell, who signed with Pittsburgh in free agency. More people know him now than knew Mitchell this time last season.
- SS Roman Harper -- Turf toe kept him out of most of the preseason, but he appears ready and insists he'll bring an attitude to the rebuilt secondary.
Newton suffered a hairline fracture in a rib during the second quarter of Friday night's exhibition loss at New England. He will not play in Thursday night's preseason finale at Pittsburgh, but he is attending every meeting and watching every snap at practice.
"Very, very," coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "He's with the coordinator, he's with the quarterback coach and they're talking about what we're looking at and why we're looking at it.
"So Cam's getting a feel for Tampa Bay right now."
Rivera said he hasn't gotten an update on how much Newton's condition has improved in the last 24 hours, but the first pick of the 2011 draft did seem less stiff when walking.
As Newton left the practice field, rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin playfully nudged him in the shoulder a couple of times. Newton responded by raising his arms and playfully shoving Benjamin back.
Rivera said treatment hasn't gotten in the way of Newton being a part of all planning involving the Bucs.
"We're working around him," said Rivera, who closed practices to the media when preparing for the Bucs began. "We're focusing him on Tampa in terms of our preparation."
Rivera said there aren't two different game plans in case Newton can't play against Tampa Bay and backup Derek Anderson has to start.
"We're putting a regular game plan together," he said. "The big thing is everything we put in our game plan Derek is able to do. We don't have two separate sheets. We have one plan."
But Rivera is having to make adjustments for what little game plan there will be for Pittsburgh. With Anderson's wife expecting their first child at any time and fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard out with a concussion, there's a chance third-stringer Joe Webb is the only quarterback.
As a precaution, Rivera said a couple of non-quarterbacks are being prepped to play quarterback if Anderson is with his wife and Webb gets hurt. He would not identify them.
Otherwise, Rivera said the plan is to play the healthy starters for about a quarter.
Starters not expected to play against Pittsburgh include Newton, right guard Trai Turner (groin), defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder) and Charles Johnson (hamstring).
A decision has not been made on tight end Greg Olsen, whose son successfully underwent open heart surgery on Monday.
All are expected to be ready for Tampa Bay.
Olsen's son, T.J., was scheduled to undergo open heart surgery on Monday for the third time after being born in 2012 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Olsen was scheduled to be away from the team "until things kind of settle down'' to be with his family.
Here's what he wrote on Twitter:
The team showed its support of Olsen, huddling to pray for his son and family after Sunday's practice. "Any time you're dealing with open heart surgery on a child, it's pretty delicate and scary in itself," Olsen told reporters. "We're unfortunately getting used to this. It's the hand he was dealt, it's the hand we were dealt, and we'll take it on like we have the last two and just hope for as fast a recovery as he can.''
Ill be taking a short break from the team as we prepare for r sons next open heart surgery 2morrow. Ill be back to work as soon as possible— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) August 25, 2014
TJ is out of surgery and being brought to ICU shortly. Were very anxious to go see him. Thanks everyone for all the prayers and well wishes— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) August 25, 2014
As for the Carolina offense, Olsen believes it will recover from Friday night's 30-7 exhibition loss in which quarterback Cam Newton suffered a hairline fracture to a rib in the second quarter. Newton will miss Thursday night's exhibition finale against Pittsburgh and his status for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay remains unclear.
Olsen isn't worried his time away will be an issue. He said many of the problems that limited Carolina to 94 yards and no points in the first half when the starters -- minus a few injured players -- played the entire way were addressed on Sunday.
"The world's not coming to an end,'' said Olsen, who led Carolina in receptions last season with 73. "That's the biggest thing, we need to understand that game doesn't matter. It's going to have zero impact on the Tampa game. That's where all of our efforts are towards.''
The Panthers are putting the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin in more situations that No. 1 receivers expect on game day in terms of the coverage he will receive.
"We've done some things defensively to put him in situations where he's being jammed, where he's being pressed, he's being doubled, he's being rolled to,'' coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "He's going to have to get used to it.''
Benjamin showed what he can do against single coverage in last week's preseason opener against Buffalo. He caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson in which he stumbled on the heel of the defender, gathered himself and made a spectacular diving catch in the end zone as he rolled to the ground.
Now that opponents are seeing what the Carolina coaches are seeing in practice, Benjamin is sure to attract more attention. That's why the Panthers are throwing more at him in practice.
"He's done pretty well,'' Rivera said. "It's probably a little different from what he experienced in college. But still, in this game, it really is a matter of how you handle it and he's done well.''
The Panthers selected Benjamin with the hope that he could replace Steve Smith as the team's top receiver. Smith, 35, was released in March and subsequently signed with Baltimore.
Some questioned whether Benjamin ran good enough routes or had enough big-time experience as a college junior to step right into the No. 1 role. Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl recently told ESPN.com that Benjamin was more than capable.
"It's obvious,'' he said.
Benjamin has accepted the challenge. He expects more press and double-team coverage in Sunday night's exhibition game against Kansas City, when he'll work with starting quarterback Cam Newton for the first time.
Newton and Benjamin have developed a bond off the field and in practice they hope carries over to big catches in games. If teams try to take him away, Benjamin isn't worried.
"Oh, yeah,'' he said. "If that happens, I just need my others receivers to step it up, and I'll clear it out for them.''
That's what Benjamin brings to this offense. If defenses focus on him, that opens the field not only for the other wide receivers but for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson.
"Listen, I will never complain about having wide receivers [who] can get down the field and keep those safeties wide,'' said Olsen, who led the team in catches last season. "The tighter those safeties get, my day gets harder and harder. There's a lot of guys sometimes in the middle of the field.''
And if teams double down on Olsen, that opens man coverage for Benjamin.
"It's going to be interesting when we're all out there together,'' Olsen said. "It's hard to predict what other teams are going to want to do.''
So the Panthers are preparing him for everything.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that made its way to the Carolina Panthers' practice field on Friday has a deeper meaning for coach Ron Rivera than most.
Rivera will get doused on Saturday in memory of ex-University of California teammate/roommate Paul Najarian after being challenged by nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch.
Najarian lost a long battle with ALS on June 23 at the age 52. He visited Rivera in December 2012 at a point when the then-second-year Carolina coach was going through a tough time professionally.
In an email to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rivera wrote: “He always had something encouraging to say to me my first two seasons as a head coach. He implored upon me to stick to my beliefs and never waver. I found strength in his words. But, when he told me he had ALS, I found even more strength. Here was my friend who was battling ALS, and he was imploring upon me to stay strong. That meant a lot.''
Rivera went from 6-10 and 7-9 during his first two seasons to 12-4 and the NFL Coach of the Year in 2013.
“Upon seeing him for the first time with ALS I was stunned,'' Rivera continued in his email. "I was even more taken by the fact that he had lost his voice. Paul had this big gregarious voice and laugh. It was gone, but not his spirit. He could only communicate by writing or trying to make hand gestures. I understood him for the most part and the one thing that stood out to me about him was he was worried about me.
“Paul and I were more than teammates. He and I were roommates our senior year. Over the years we stayed in touch throughout my playing and coaching careers. Paul was more than a teammate, roommate and friend, he was a Golden Bear. He was our brother. He is loved and missed.”
For those who have missed this campaign that has taken the country by storm, the ALS has more than quadrupled its donations in 2014 thanks to athletes and celebrities who have agreed to be doused with a bucket of ice water and make donations.
Carolina running backs Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were the first to partake on Friday, followed by tight end Greg Olsen, backup quarterback Derek Anderson, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and mascot Sir Purr.
Rivera will be doused Saturday on camera for Fox Sports, which is televising Sunday night's exhibition game between Carolina and Kansas City at Bank of America Stadium.
Lynch is a color commentator for Fox.
"It's got some personal meaning to me,'' Rivera said. "So I'm honored John Lynch called me out on it and I'm going to most certainly call a couple of people out as well.''
How much more depends on how he and a revamped offensive line are performing.
For Newton, the goal is about 40 snaps. If he gets that in the first half, he's done. If he plays like he practiced on Thursday, he won't have any trouble getting to that.
"He looks good," Rivera said. "He's sharp. Made some really good throws today. He missed a couple near the end of practice, but early on he was really throwing it well."
While Newton was turned loose to run the read option in practice earlier this week, he won't against the Chiefs. Rivera wants to save that for the regular season and not risk a setback.
Rivera hopes Newton resists all temptations to run -- even if pressured. He's skeptical Newton has that much willpower if under a heavy rush.
"He can't help himself," Rivera said. "He loves to compete, and he wants to win. That is one of the things that is of concern, is that he'll get out there, and he may see something -- he may go from a three- to a seven[-step drop] -- and the next thing you know he's out there doing his thing. That's just who he is. He's very competitive. He wants to win."
Newton just wants to do something besides practice. And it's important for him to get as much playing time as he can with his new receivers and line.
"Very valuable," Newton said. "Anytime you get the opportunity to compete, whether you're on the field practicing or actual game action, it's always positive. At the end of the day, coach is always striving for us to excel in competing situations."
Newton also understands the value of being smart. He's talked with others who have come back from injuries.
"The thing that keeps coming back up is keep treating it, keep treating it," he said. "Treat it when it feels good, treat it when it feels bad. Don't be that guy that only treats it when it's nagging. Try to stay ahead of the pain, and that's what I've been doing."
Rivera ruled several players out already. Among them is free safety Roman Harper, who has turf toe.
Harper missed most of training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but Rivera doesn't sound concerned. And don't count on the Panthers bringing back Quintin Mikell, who finished last season as a starter after signing late in camp.
Mikell had offseason foot surgery and told Philly Sports Talk he is all but retired.
Rivera clarified that tight end Greg Olsen did not leave practice on Tuesday because of cramps, but because he was kicked in the calf. Olsen is expected to play against the Chiefs.
Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn tweaked his back and did not practice. Rivera hasn't ruled him out.
"He's a veteran guy, too, so we're not overly concerned about him missing any time," he said. "Hopefully it's just one of those things, and maybe a little bit of veteran time, too."
And since defensive end Greg Hardy said last year he could take James in a game of one-on-one, logic suggests Williams could as well.
"I don't know about that," Williams said on Sunday with a laugh.
Hey, it made for a good rainy day conversation in training camp. That Williams' last team before Carolina signed him as a free agent in 2013 was the Portland Bible College basketball team gives it more legitimacy.
But other than a game of "Around the World" in the Wofford College gym, Williams' focus is on playing tight end. The progress the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder has made since last season, when he played in nine games but caught no passes, is remarkable.
“He’s probably come as far as anybody on this team,” said starting tight end Greg Olsen, who led the team in catches last season. “I’m really happy for him because he’s a great kid. He wants to learn. He works his ass off. Physically, he has a lot of gifts that are hard to coach.”
Williams showed a glimpse of his potential in Friday night's 20-18 loss to Buffalo. He caught three passes for 50 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown with 1:37 remaining.
He played 56 snaps, which may be more than he had all of last season.
"Just being out there on the field is a blessing for me, because I was out of football for two years," Williams said. "Then scoring a touchdown, regardless of whether it is preseason or not, it was surreal for me."
Williams' football career seemed over after he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis before his career at Oregon got off the ground in 2011. It wasn't until he underwent more testing while playing basketball that he was given medical clearance to participate in last year's NFL Regional Combine in Seattle, where he turned heads running the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds.
That's where the Panthers discovered him. Like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and other basketball players who have transitioned into great NFL tight ends, Williams showed a natural instinct for the position.
After spending much of the offseason soaking up all the knowledge he could from Olsen, Williams has emerged as a potential weapon for quarterback Cam Newton.
That coincides with Carolina's move to more two-tight-end formations, which gives offensive coordinator Mike Shula greater flexibility because it makes the offense more unpredictable.
The signing of free agents Ed Dickson and Mike McNeil makes Williams' chances of making the 53-man roster more difficult, but he should be a lock the way he's practicing and performing.
"I say the sky's the limit," Williams said. "I try not to give myself a ceiling."
Williams is embracing everything that is happening like he embraced the nickname "Swoll Bones" that Newton gave him last year because he's so muscular.
Williams also embraces his status as the team's best basketball player, declaring he hasn't found anybody who can take him.
"Right now, I'm the champion of 'Around the World,'" Williams said. "I plan on keeping that."
And the Panthers plan on keeping Williams around.
The Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator still is learning everything these new toys can do, but he likes what he's seen so far -- particularly from a certain 6-foot-5, 240-pound gadget after his spectacular catch in Friday night's 20-18 preseason loss to Buffalo.
Shula believes he has flexibility to have more fun with this new toys than his old ones, and that has the potential to make his offense better than a year ago.
"Yeah!" Shula said. "Heck yeah!"
There's plenty of room to improve.
The Panthers ranked 26th in total offense in 2013, averaging 316 yards a game. They were 29th in passing (190.2 yards per game) and 18th in scoring (22.9 points per game).
But it was obvious the offense needed an overhaul if the overall team was to improve. That's why Shula is excited about his new toys, particularly as it pertains to his new wide receivers -- rookie Kelvin Benjamin (the 6-5 toy), veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant -- and tight end Ed Dickson.
"It been great," Shula said. "They've come in with a workmanlike attitude, very serious, eager to prove themselves and earn a spot on the team. Competition is a beautiful thing. These guys get along good."
Shula isn't dishing on his old toys. But wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March, is 35 and at the end of his career. He didn't always get along. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon were adequate, but not irreplaceable.
Sometimes you have to tear things apart to move forward. That's what Carolina has done.
"We're starting over with guys that are knowledgeable, that are smart guys, that there's a reason why they've been in the league," Shula said. "They're new, but it's kind of been a positive thing."
Benjamin has received most of the headlines. The 28th pick of the draft has been phenomenal, catching everything thrown in his direction. His 29-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo while stumbling into the end zone showed just how special he is.
He's emerged as a No. 1 receiver that the 5-9 Smith admittedly wasn't anymore.
"He's such a big target, it has to give you more confidence as a quarterback, like a jump shooter with a basket that is twice as big," Shula said.
Dickson, a free agent pickup from Baltimore, also was a big addition. Putting him opposite Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver in 2013, in a two-tight end set has opened possibilities that Shula didn't have last season.
Defenses will have to commit eight players to the box, which will prevent double-teams on receivers and free up the entire offense.
"It gives you flexibility," Shula said. "It makes you less predictable by personnel groupings. So if all of a sudden you come in with two tight ends, you're not necessarily going to run the ball, you're not necessarily going to be in single-back, you're not necessarily going to have two tight ends on the edge.
"So now the defense can't just say, 'Oh, well, they're just going to play these formations, and out of these formations they're going to run just these plays.'"
But it's not just the new toys that excite Shula. Newton has looked as sharp as ever despite being limited since returning from offseason ankle surgery.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil gives the line a stabilizing force. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert still offer a solid one-two punch in the backfield. Olsen looks as dependable as ever.
"The core guys," Shula said with a smile.
At the core of Shula's excitement is Newton. The only thing sharper than his timing with receivers has been his leadership. Nobody has been more active in encouraging players who do well and motivating them when they need pushing.
"With all that there's a calmness and confidence," Shula said of the fourth-year quarterback. "He's always had that cool personality on the field. Now there's some added confidence with experience."
Old toys, new toys.
Shula has a lot more to play with now.
Quarterback Cam Newton drops back and lofts a high pass in the direction of the 6-foot-5 Benjamin running down the left sideline. Benjamin soars into the air and comes down with the football.
The crowd at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium cheers.
To those -- including coach Ron Rivera prior to the draft -- that said the Panthers didn't necessarily need a true No. 1 receiver after releasing Steve Smith, you can stop that debate.
They have one in Benjamin, who returned to practice on Saturday for the first time since bruising his left knee on Sunday.
This is what the former Florida State standout brings to the offense, why he will make even the most diehard Smith fans forget about the seemingly harsh way Carolina's all-time leading receiver was let go.
"Yes, he does," wide receiver coach Rick Proehl said when I asked if Benjamin looked like a No. 1 receiver. "It's obvious."
It's also early, as Proehl quickly reminded. But he also admitted early returns are looking good.
"There are going to be some trials he's going to go through," Proehl said. "But if you keep making plays like he is right now they're going to come up and press him. How he adjusts and how he adapts will be his next step in being a No. 1 receiver.
"But every indication, right now ... he has a great feel for the game."
Benjamin still makes rookie mistakes, but he doesn't look like a rookie. And as Proehl noted, the misperception that Benjamin wasn't advanced in running good routes, "that's not true at all."
The perception that you can't coach Benjamin's size is true. Combine that with his route running and sneaky-fast speed and you have a weapon that defenses will have to respect from the get-go.
"No question," Proehl said. "The catches he's made have been amazing. You don't have to put it in a tight window. Just throw it up and put it in the general area and he's going to come down with it. That's what he brings to the table."
The Carolina defense certainly pays attention to Benjamin. When he lined up inside at the slot with Brenton Bersin and Tiquan Underwood on the outside during a red-zone play, defenders were screaming "13 in the slot" like it was a fire drill.
"They're going to have to [pay attention]," Proehl said. "He's got to make those plays, starting in preseason. But if he does and when he does, it's going to open it up for other guys."
Tight end Greg Olsen, as Proehl noted of last season's leading receiver, "should be ecstatic."
"Now they can't double him, and it's going to open things for him down the field as well as [Jerricho Cotchery] and [Jason] Avant and all the other guys," he added.
Among the other guys is tight end Ed Dickson, a free agent acquisition from Baltimore who sometimes lines up wide like a receiver. He's having a camp almost as impressive as Benjamin's.
"He's a stud, too," Proehl said. "You look at him and you're like, 'How did we get a guy like that? How was he on the street?' He's opened my eyes. He's a helluva player."
Dickson is a big reason the Panthers effectively can go to the two-tight-end set as they could in 2011 when Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards as a rookie with Jeremy Shockey opposite Olsen.
That season, the 5-9 Smith had 79 catches, his highest total in his past six seasons.
Benjamin should benefit in similar ways, maybe more because of his size. He looks unstoppable on the alley-oop pass like the one on which he beat White.
Can he be stopped on that play? I had to ask.
"Coach Ricky, he always told me just to go up and get the ball at its highest point," Benjamin said. "If I can do that, probably not."
Just what you would expect a No. 1 receiver to say.
- If you were looking for something definitive at the left tackle position after the first practice in pads, sorry. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler both got opportunities there and both did well in giving quarterback Cam Newton time to throw. Bell started off on the left side during 7-on-7 drills and Chandler began team drills there. In one-on-one drills Chandler did a nice job of taking defensive end Charles Johnson to the ground once. The Panthers will continue to use both players there for the next few weeks as they look to replace retired Jordan Gross, who has lost so much weight he could play tight end or wide receiver. Coach Ron Rivera wants to make a decision on the starter after the second preseason game. The Panthers will face some good pass-rushers in Buffalo end Mario Williams and Kansas City linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford from a 3-4 set. Williams had 4.5 sacks in Week 2 against Carolina last season with most coming against Bell playing right tackle. Stay tuned. Too close to call, but both are showing potential.
- Tight end Greg Olsen was wide open on a touchdown catch down the left sideline. Tight end Ed Dickson made a diving catch on a slant pattern. Tight end Brandon Williams made a nice over-the-shoulder catch deep in traffic. Tight end Mike McNeill made a tough catch in traffic over the middle. Tight end D.C. Jefferson made a solid catch in stride about 25 yards deep. Notice a theme here? The Panthers have more than enough choices to complement Olsen as they go to a two-tight end set. It's a luxury they haven't had since Jeremy Shockey was here in 2011. And I haven't mentioned Richie Brockel, who is listed as a TE/FB. The team kept four tight ends last season, and Rivera says there is a scenario where it could keep five this year. This definitely softens the blow of losing the top four wide receivers from last season.
- Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin made an acrobatic, twisting catch on a high pass from Cam Newton on the first play of 7-on-7 drills. He snagged a somewhat high bullet over the middle on the first play of team drills. He caught a nice out pattern on the first series of another team session. In other words, the 28th pick of the draft is becoming quite comfortable with Newton in a hurry. A lot of this may have to do with the two staying in Charlotte, North Carolina, to work out together while the team was off from June 19 through last Thursday. If they continue to develop this chemistry people may forget Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was cut during the offseason.
- Philly Brown went to the ground and did what appeared to be 20 pushups after having a punt bounce off his chest early in practice. There were drops by a few other returners as the Panthers attempt to replace Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona in free agency. Don't think Rivera didn't notice it. "The thing we have to understand is first and foremost we have to catch the ball. I could care less if we fair catch it every time, but we've got to catch it.'' The leader in the clubhouse for the job might be Antoine Cason, who returned punts at San Diego while Rivera was there. It's interesting that speedster Tiquan Underwood hasn't been given a chance there yet, but Rivera said others could be added to the mix that so far includes Cason, Kenjon Barner and Brown. Bottom line, the Panthers will miss Ginn much more here more than they will at receiver.
- Carolina holds its first morning practice on Monday after two night practices and a 3:10 p.m. session. Sunday's workout was somewhat sloppy, and Rivera reminded players of that afterwards, telling them he "expected a better practice tomorrow.''
Total position spending: $10,136,000
Spending vs. league average: 6
Analysis: Some might find it surprising that Carolina ranks sixth in the NFL in tight end spending. But it's really not out of line when you consider tight end is a big part of what the Panthers want to do offensively both running and passing. They invested wisely in Greg Olsen. He led the team in receptions last season and is emerging as one of the top tight ends in the NFL, worth every penny of his $7.8 million cap figure. They added Baltimore free agent Ed Dickson in free agency to give quarterback Cam Newton another receiving target in a two tight end set. If you remember, Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards as a rookie when he had Olsen and Jeremy Shockey in a two tight-end set. The Panthers also want to run more power formations, so they signed Mike McNeill from St. Louis for a reasonable $710,000. And one of the biggest bargains on the team may come in Brandon Williams, a former basketball player. He really started coming into his own as a potential weapon in OTAs and has a cap figure of only $495,000. Hard to really argue with anything spent here.
"This year we have a plethora of veteran tight ends to the point we didn't bring in anybody who was a rookie," Rivera said.
The Panthers have six tight ends, to be exact.
By definition, plethora means "an amount that is much greater than what is necessary." And while six may seem excessive, it really isn't considering the Panthers are going to use a lot more two-tight end sets than they did the past two seasons.
"With an extra tight end in the game you can do so many different things," Rivera said. "Depending on who the tight end is, you can line up as a fullback, as another wide receiver or as a wing tight end. It's going to give us a lot more versatility."
The Panthers kept three tight ends on their 53-man roster a year ago in Greg Olsen, Ben Hartsock and Brandon Williams -- four when you count Richie Brockel, who plays fullback and tight end.
They could keep as many as five this season between Olsen, Ed Dickson, Williams, Mike McNeill, D.C. Jefferson and Brockel.
Olsen, going into his eighth season out of Miami, is a given. He led the team in receptions last season with 73 for 816 yards and six touchdowns. He's in his prime.
But the only other tight end to catch a pass in 2013 was Brockel, and he had one catch for 12 yards.
That will change with the addition of Dickson, a fifth-year player who caught 25 passes last season and 54 three years ago for the Baltimore Ravens. His presence in routes during offseason workouts has been noticeable.
The Panthers also expect more from Williams, a former basketball player at Portland Bible College who surprised many when he made the final roster a year ago. Athletically, at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he's drawn comparisons to Denver tight end Julius Thomas.
McNeill was brought in as a free agent from St. Louis to be a blocker. The Panthers believe he is an upgrade from Hartsock, who was not re-signed.
The long shot to make the roster is Jefferson, a seventh-round pick by Arizona in 2013.
But it's clear the Panthers plan to use the tight end more and get back to the way they were in 2011, when they had Olsen and Jeremy Shockey during quarterback Cam Newton's rookie season.
Newton completed 310 of 517 passes for an NFL-rookie-record 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns that season. Eighty-two of those for 955 yards and nine touchdowns went to Olsen and Shockey.
Having two tight ends in the game also gives Newton more protection with a revamped offensive line and more flexibility to run with an extra blocker.
"It's a personnel group I believe in," Rivera said. "It poses a lot of problems for your opponents."
Too bad he didn't say plethora of problems.
Now it's back to business.
The Panthers return to the field on Tuesday for the first time since they lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional playoff game in January as Phase III of offseason workouts begin.
It will be the first time all the free agents, rookies and returning players have been through an organized session outside of the weight room and classroom.
"It's going to be great,'' Olsen said. "We had a good week [working out together]. It will be interesting to see how it all starts to come together.''
There are many questions to resolve from a team coming off a 12-4 record and NFC South championship. Here are five areas to keep an eye on:
- The receivers: As you've probably read more times than you can count, the Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from last season. Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, was released. The next three went to other teams in free agency. The Panthers replaced them with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Benjamin was impressive in rookie camp, but that was going against players who won't be on the roster. This will be his first big-time test. But the players I'm most interested in seeing are youngsters Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin. One of the reasons the Panthers let Smith go was to allow one or more of these players to develop. One needs to emerge for this to be a strong group.
- The offensive line: Outside of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, this unit looks to be completely revamped. The key position is left tackle, where Jordan Gross retired. Right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler are the front-runners for that spot. Much doubt has been cast on whether Bell is ready -- or talented enough -- for the move. How well this group does depends largely on whether he or Chandler emerges as a legitimate candidate to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side.
- The secondary: Cornerback Melvin White, an undrafted rookie last season, is the only returning player from the four that started against San Francisco. Like the offensive line, this unit will be revamped with a mixture of veterans in free-agent safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud and young players looking to prove themselves. I'll be most interested in seeing one player who is not expected to compete in OTAs. That's Charles Godfrey, who will move from safety to cornerback. Godfrey missed most of last season with an Achilles injury that he continues to recover from, then had his contract significantly reduced to return and compete at a new position.
- The distraction: Defensive end Greg Hardy is expected to be on the field for the first time since being arrested on domestic violence charges on May 13. His next court date is June 27 and he hasn't spoken to the media since his arrest, so it will be interesting to see how he and the team handles this. Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman have said they won't respond until Hardy's case is resolved, and their focus will be on football. But there will be a lot of eyes off the field on Hardy, who was given the franchise tag in February. Meanwhile, second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, will get a lot of work as the Panthers expect him to be a big part of the rotation.
- The quarterbacks: Newton will remain sidelined, recovering from offseason ankle surgery. That leaves the throwing to backup Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb. I'm most intrigued by Webb here. The Panthers know what they have in Anderson, a pure pocket passer. They signed Webb from Minnesota, which had moved him back and forth between quarterback and wide receiver, to give them a signal-caller who more closely does the things Newton does with his legs. If he's going to make the team, this will be his best chance to prove himself.
He has the most to lose since coverages that were focused on Steve Smith, often leaving the middle of the field open, could be shifted to the tight end.
But Olsen isn't concerned -- or if he is he's not showing it.
"I know everyone at one point was kind of panicking," Olsen recently told the Charlotte Observer at a screening of the movie "Draft Day." "Would it have been nice to have those [receivers] back? Of course.
"But I think we’ve signed a lot of guys that can fill a lot of those roles. We’re putting it together. It’s hard to judge a team in March. When the season gets closer, that will be a better example of what our team is.”
The Panthers released Smith, their all-time leading receiver, in March. They lost their next three wide receivers, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon, to free agency.
That left them without a receiver on the roster that caught a pass last season.
They have since signed Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay), but none of those receivers has put up statistics close to what Smith did during his career. None are considered a No. 1 receiver. Most were a second, third or even fourth option last season.
Again, Olsen isn't concerned even though he now will become a central piece in game plans to stop the Carolina passing attack. If anything he's optimistic because the team signed Baltimore free agent tight end Ed Dickson, opening up the possibility of more two-tight-end sets.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw for a career-high 4,051 yards as a rookie in 2011 with Olsen and Jeremy Shockey running a lot of two-tight-end sets. They combined for 82 catches for 995 yards and nine touchdowns.
"There is a plan," Olsen said. "We have to trust in that. Mr. Gettleman's done an awesome job since he’s gotten here in a short time putting pieces in place to fill holes. And doing so with guys other people maybe overlooked. Last year, a lot of the guys that came in were in that type of situation and were huge parts of our team.”
Dickson could be a nice receiving complement to tight end Greg Olsen, who led the team in receptions last season. Dickson had only 25 catches this past season, but in 2011 he caught a career-high 54 for 528 yards and five touchdowns.
A fifth-year player out of Oregon, Dickson was a third-round pick by the Ravens in 2010. Buffalo also has shown an interest, and the Ravens reportedly haven't ruled out re-signing him.
For the Panthers to show interest in another tight end likely means the team will not re-sign Ben Hartsock.