Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first NFL game Jarrett Boykin attended was the Carolina Panthers’ home opener against Jacksonville during their 2003 Super Bowl run. He grew up a fan of wide receiver Steve Smith, Carolina’s all-time leading receiver.

 Now Boykin hopes to make a name for himself with the Panthers.

Carolina signed the former Green Bay Packers wide receiver on Friday to a one-year deal.

A former star at Charlotte’s Butler High School, Boykin hopes to resurrect an NFL career that took a down turn after he suffered a groin injury last season.

He also is expected to contribute to special teams, having played all four special team groups for the Packers last season.

“Try to seize the moment,’’ Boykin said after signing.

Boykin was in position to seize the moment at Green Bay. After catching 49 passes for 681 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, he entered last season as the No. 3 receiver. Then came the injury.

When Boykin was ready to return, he’d lost the No. 3 job to Davante Adams. When the Packers didn’t tender him an offer as a restricted free agent, he began job hunting.

When the Panthers showed interest, Boykin decided to return home to start over.

“They definitely said there will be opportunities,’’ Boykin said.

There are opportunities. Outside of Kelvin Benjamin, last year’s first-round draft pick, there isn’t an elite No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery are the front-runners for the second and third spots, but neither are good enough to be considered a lock.

Boykin describes himself as a physical receiver, one that sets up defensive backs with his body. He prides himself on making the tough catch as his childhood hero Smith did.

“He was a small, scrappy guy, and he brought a lot of heart to the field,’’ Boykin said of Smith. “Being young, that’s the type of player you want to be.’’

Now Boykin has a chance to be that kind of player for his hometown team.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers added more depth at wide receiver on Friday, signing Jarrett Boykin to a one-year deal.

Boykin, who attended Butler High School in Charlotte, visited the Panthers a few weeks ago. He became a free agent after spending the past three seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

Boykin lost his spot as the third receiver at Green Bay this past season, catching only three passes for 23 yards. In 2013, he had 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns.

Boykin is not known for his speed, but the former Virginia Tech standout has good size at 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds.

He originally signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. After only a few days on the roster, he was cut and picked up by Green Bay.

He likely will compete as the third or fourth receiver with Carolina behind Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery.

The signing of Boykin came hours after it was announced that free agent cornerback Alan Ball had signed with the Chicago Bears. Ball visited with the Panthers last Friday and, according to multiple sources, had agreed in principle to terms.

PHOENIX -- The Carolina Panthers' competition for free-agent wide receiver Greg Jennings continues to grow.

Jennings visited with the Panthers on Saturday in Charlotte. He reportedly has a "tentative" meeting set up with the Miami Dolphins during the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix.

Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell told reporters on Monday at the owners meeting that the Jaguars had an interest in the 31-year old receiver, but hadn't set up a visit.

Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson hasn't ruled out Jennings returning to the Packers, where he played his first seven seasons (2006-2012) before going to Minnesota for two seasons.

Jennings is considered a valuable commodity as a receiver and for his locker room presence. At Carolina he would have an opportunity to compete for the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year's first-round draft pick.

The Panthers still likely would draft a speed wide receiver to develop opposite Benjamin.

The Carolina Panthers continue to explore options to upgrade the wide receiver position before the NFL draft.

Former Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings visited with team officials in Charlotte on Saturday, according to multiple reports.

Jennings, 31, started 13 games for Minnesota last season, catching 59 passes for 742 yards and six touchdowns. In nine seasons, seven with Green Bay, he has 552 catches for 8,083 yards and 63 touchdowns.

If signed, Jennings would be another veteran, along with Jerricho Cotchery, to play opposite 2014 first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. He doesn’t have the speed he once did to stretch defenses, but he has dependable hands and would be a slight upgrade over Cotchery.

The Vikings recently released Jennings, who was scheduled to count $11 million against the salary cap in 2015. The former Western Michigan star won’t earn close to that in free agency.

Carolina already has signed wide receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency and could select another speed receiver in the draft, which is deep at that position.

Jennings is expected to meet with several teams, so nothing appears imminent with Carolina.

General manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera were heading to Phoenix on Sunday for the NFL owners meetings, which run through Wednesday.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Based on all of your questions for today’s mailbag, you don’t believe the Carolina Panthers are ready to hit the field with the current group of wide receivers.

You’re probably right.

Aside from the signing of unrestricted free agent Ted Ginn, the Panthers still haven’t addressed the need of an elite No. 2 receiver with speed to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin. Ginn was signed as much or more for his kick return skills as his receiving ability.

Fortunately for Carolina, the draft is as loaded at wide receiver as it was a year ago when the Panthers selected Benjamin with the 28th pick.

Let’s get to the questions:

@DNewtonESPN: You won't see Stephen Hill remaining on the practice squad for another year. If he's not ready to contribute, he will be cut. The Panthers obviously saw something in the former second-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech to leave him on the practice squad all of last season after the Jets released him. If receivers coach Ricky Proehl can't develop him into a valuable commodity, I'm not sure anybody can.

@DNewtonESPN: First, I agree with you. Spending a lot of money on free agents, in my opinion, is overrated. As for wide receivers, they are looking at speed receivers who might be available in the first three or four rounds. Proehl has been all over the country as he was last year working out players, from Louisville's DeVante Parker to Central Arkansas' Dez Lewis. The team worked out Georgia's Chris Conley in Athens this week. Stanford's Ty Montgomery is among those that have come to Charlotte for a visit. I get the feeling the Panthers are looking to fill that need in the second or third round, but if one of the top four or possibly five falls to them at No. 25, you never know. Before selecting Benjamin last season, the Panthers hadn't taken a receiver in the first round since 1997. That was Rae Carruth.

@DNewtonESPN: Because of moves in free agency it appears Carolina's first-round pick will come down to four positions. Wide receiver is one of them. Offensive tackle, running back and a defensive lineman are the others, with tackle still the leader in the clubhouse.

@DNewtonESPN: See, a lot of wide receiver questions. General manager Dave Gettleman took defensive tackles in the first and second round in 2013 because he believes in building from the inside out. I can't see him doing that at receiver.

@DNewtonESPN: Denarius Moore is still out there, and I'm a bit surprised. He definitely fits the mold of a speed receiver and special teams contributor the Panthers targeted, but the wide receiver spot on the roster is getting pretty full, and there's still the draft.

@DNewtonESPN: Oh, that's easy. The best player available. If you want me to guess a specific name I could, but it would only be an educated guess. As I mentioned above, with what the Panthers have done in free agency and with the college players they have worked out privately, I'd say the best player between an offensive tackle, wide receiver or defensive lineman. But if you want a name now, I'll go with Florida tackle D.J. Humphries. He's a Charlotte kid, so that would make a good story.

@DNewtonESPN: If I were Robert Lester I'd be concerned with the addition of safety Kurt Coleman. I still see Melvin White as a solid backup cornerback. Remember, he started most of the 2013 season and made one of the biggest plays of the season with that interception returned for a touchdown at Atlanta in the regular-season finale.

@DNewtonESPN: Yes. And maybe the third or possibly fourth rounds as well.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Just because the Carolina Panthers have been relatively quiet in free agency doesn’t mean you don’t have questions.

Fire away:

@DNewtonESPN: Love the hypothetical questions. Had money been no object, adding in a need for the Panthers, I'd say wide receiver Torrey Smith. The five-year, $40 million deal he got from San Francisco really doesn't sound that high considering his age and the impact he could have as the speed receiver opposite Kelvin Benjamin. He also has the character the Panthers seemingly want. Plus it would have been something else to get under the skin of former Panthers receiver Steve Smith seeing another Smith that was his teammate at Baltimore in a Carolina uniform. You could argue since this is hypothetical why not say defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or wide receiver Randall Cobb. Here's why. The Panthers have two good, young defensive tackles in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. And Cobb is more of a slot receiver, not the pure burner Carolina wants. @DNewtonESPN: Well, the Florida offensive tackle is a native of Charlotte and there was a report he had dinner with offensive line coach John Matsko this past week. That tackle remains a big need even with the signing of Michael Oher, whom I consider a stopgap solution, Humphries makes a lot of sense. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked Humphries No. 23 on his latest big board and had him going to Carolina in his most recent mock draft. It all depends on how the board falls. General manager Dave ettleman says he'll take the best player available regardless of need. I believe him. I also know he likes the big fellas, and when you pair that with need a tackle makes the most sense at 25. But if the right speed receiver is there or one of the elite pass rushers falls . . . then we're back to best player available. @DNewtonESPN: Yes, it ultimately was owner Jerry Richardson's decision not to keep Greg Hardy. Were it left up to head coach Ron Rivera and Gettleman I'm convinced Hardy would have been re-signed. Richardson writes the checks, so it's easy to understand why he wouldn't want to risk investing in a player who already cost him $13.1 million for one game in 2014. As much as Hardy brings to the table on the field and in the locker room, it's hard to deny the risk factor. @DNewtonESPN: Probably not. The Panthers already have Charles Johnson, Kony Ealy, Mario Addison, Wes Horton and Frank Alexander. People keep forgetting Alexander, who was suspended most of last season for violating the league's substance abuse rules. But he was Ron Rivera's MVP of training camp. @DNewtonESPN: As I've written a few times, don't look for this to get done before the summer. It could happen before then, but until Seattle gets a new deal with Russell Wilson to set the market Cam Newton and his people will be fine with waiting. And the Panthers have no reason to rush into anything since they always can use the franchise tag on Newton in 2016. @DNewtonESPN: I thought the Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver made the most sense. He's a second-tier guy, a speedster and young. Cleveland has been mentioned as a likely landing spot, and there have been rumblings on social media about the Panthers having interest. Nothing more than rumblings, though. Don't forget, the draft is deep at wide receiver again. The Panthers have just as much of a chance as finding a talented player there to feature opposite Kelvin Benjamin as they do in free agency. @DNewtonESPN: Price range, perhaps. But he's 30 and he had that little off-the-field issue that resulted in a one-game suspension. As I mentioned above, the draft may be the best place to fill the need at receiver. Stephen Hill also remains under contract, even though he spent all of last season on the practice squad. It will be interesting to see if he emerges this year. @DNewtonESPN: Not satisfied, but the Panthers know the draft is deep and that's the cheapest way to upgrade with a player that could be more of a long-term fix. @DNewtonESPN: I've addressed this, but around $11.4 million before special teams player Teddy Williams and about $900,000 hit the books. Between $5 million and $7 million that will be set aside for draft picks and roster moves in training camp and early season. So there's room to make a few moves, but nothing big.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers were busy Monday shoring up the wide receiver position for 2015, but they're probably not done.

Carolina agreed to terms with free agent Ted Ginn Jr. and signed exclusive rights free agent Brenton Bersin to a one-year deal.

Bersin
Ginn
Ginn
But neither is considered an elite No. 2 receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year's No. 1 pick.

Look for the Panthers to add another wide receiver with elite speed in the NFL draft and/or free agency in their effort to give quarterback Cam Newton more weapons.

It's a continuation of a rebuilding process that began after the Panthers parted last offseason with their top four wide receivers from the 2013 season.

Here's a look at Carolina's wide receivers as of Monday morning:
  • Kelvin Benjamin: The No. 28 pick in the 2014 draft, he led Carolina wide receivers in receptions this past season with 73 for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. A solid possession receiver who can make outstanding catches.
  • Jerricho Cotchery: Signed a two-year deal in free agency last season and currently is the highest-paid (pending what Ginn got) wide receiver on the roster with a $1.95 million 2015 cap number. Fills the role of a No. 3 or 4 receiver, but nothing more.
  • Ted Ginn Jr.: Returning to Carolina after struggling last season with the Arizona Cardinals, who released him to save $2.5 million under the salary cap. He had 36 catches for 556 yards and five touchdowns with Carolina in 2013, his best since season 2008 with Miami. A deep threat that may be more valuable as a kick returner.
  • Philly Brown: An undrafted rookie who emerged late last season as a deep threat. He caught 21 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns. He's still not a proven commodity.
  • Brenton Bersin: A sure-handed receiver who caught 13 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown last season. Not much more than a role player at this point.
  • Stephen Hill: A second-round pick by the Jets in 2012, he was signed to Carolina's practice squad last season after being released by New York. Had 45 catches for 594 yards and four touchdowns in two seasons with New York. An intriguing project.
  • Mike Brown: Signed to a future contract in January after spending three years with Jacksonville.
  • De'Andre Presley: Spent the first nine games last season on the physically unable to perform list with a stress fracture in his leg. Played in four games, but had no catches.
  • Marcus Lucas: Spent the 2014 season on the practice squad.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. –Here’s a look at five free agents that Carolina Panthers fans can only dream of adding to the roster and five that are more realistic as NFL teams position themselves to sign players from other teams beginning at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

In your dreams

Cobb
Green Bay wide receiver Randall Cobb: Easily the best available receiver in free agency, but too costly for Carolina. Beyond the high price tag, he might not be the best fit in Carolina’s system. He caught a majority of his passes last season from the slot, and had only six receptions of more than 20 yards. Carolina’s primary need is a speed receiver who can blow the top off defenses. Besides, Cobb will want $8 million to $10 million a year.

Green Bay right tackle Bryan Bulaga: Easily the best available tackle, although he played the right side for Green Bay. Even if Carolina thought he could transition to the left side, he’d still cost too much.

New England safety Devin McCourty: He’ll be on the shopping list for a lot of teams, which probably will drive his price too high for what Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman is willing to spend at this position. As many drawbacks as Roman Harper had last season, he was serviceable. Gettleman hasn’t rushed to sign safeties in his first two seasons, and I don’t look for him to start.

Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin: He has excellent speed, good hands and is a good route runner, which would make him a nice complement to Kelvin Benjamin. But like Cobb, the price likely is too high, particularly for a player who thrived as much last season for being in Chip Kelly’s system as he did from pure talent.

Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: I threw him in here only because I’ve had a lot of people ask about him. The price tag simply is too high even for a “Hog Mollie,’’ what Gettleman calls big defensive and offensive lineman around whom he wants to build. The Panthers also are happy with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the middle.

Dream on

Housler
Maxwell
Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell: Perhaps he should be in the above category because the price could be too high. But if he comes in on the low end of the $4 million to $8 million range he could be the perfect fit. He’s long (6-1) and fast as the Panthers seek. He comes from a Seattle defense that plays a 4-3 scheme similar to what Carolina runs. Put him opposite Josh Norman and move Bene’ Benwikere to nickel and you’re set for years to come. Plus, he’s from Charleston, South Caroluna, and played at nearby at Clemson.

San Francisco cornerback Perrish Cox: He has many of the same skill sets as Maxwell, although ESPN analyst Bill Polian gave him a “D” rating for free agency. He had five interceptions last season and would come as a more reasonable cost than Maxwell.

Dallas offensive tackle Doug Free: He’s 31, so not a long-term fix even if the Panthers believe he could transition from right to left tackle. But he’s solid, particularly as a run blocker, and reportedly a good team leader. He could be a stopgap while waiting for a young player to develop if the Panthers draft a tackle.

Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith: Wouldn’t that be a hoot if the Panthers signed this Smith (26) after Baltimore signed Steve Smith when Carolina released him last year? This Smith has the elite speed the Panthers are seeking opposite Benjamin.

Oakland wide receiver Denarius Moore: He’s young (26) and has elite speed. Bill Polian gave him a B-plus grade, ranking him behind only Cob and Maclin among wide receiver free agents. He had only 12 catches for a bad team last season, so he’d be cheap.
The Carolina Panthers are in Indianapolis evaluating college football talent for the NFL draft.

I am here to answer your questions.

Let's get to it:


@DNewtonESPN: For those that aren't aware who DGB is, that's Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. He's a tremendous talent. He was the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2012. He also has a troubled past, from drug-related arrests, a failed drug test, his dismissal from the Missouri team, to reports he pushed a woman down a flight of stairs. The Panthers are in the market for a speed wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year's first-round pick. They won't be in the market for DGB if you heard what general manager Dave Gettleman said on Thursday when asked about considering draft prospects with domestic violence issues. "Who wants a ticking time bomb?" Gettleman said. "I don't think it's going to change. Every organization I've ever been with ... they'll stay away from the characters, guys that have character issues and the potential to continue those issues. This is too hard to have to worry about that."


@DNewtonESPN: Good question. The Panthers fall right into the same mix with an average age of 26.47 among the 53 players on the final roster last season. Coach Ron Rivera mentioned at the combine how impressed he was by the influx of young players late in the season. Six rookies started down the stretch as Carolina went 5-1. "We were very fortunate last year," Rivera said. "We counted 22 young guys that we had on the roster, whether it be the practice squad or on the active 53. And of those 22, we had 16 that contributed directly. So that we felt was a really good number that helped us. And the other six contributed as well because they were practice squad guys that helped us give us a good look. So we felt really comfortable and really confident in that young group of guys."


@DNewtonESPN: This is something I addressed in terms of Thomas Davis in Friday's look at the combine. There are a couple of players that could be available at No. 25 that remind me of Davis when he came out of Georgia as a safety. One is Clemson's Vic Beasley, a defensive end in college who is built more like an outside linebacker. It might be more of an adjustment for him to drop into coverage, but he has the athletic ability. The other is Washington's Shaq Thompson, a safety/linebacker who might be one of the most athletic players in the draft. Even if Davis has a year or two left, adding another player of that caliber to play opposite him and groom for the future wouldn't be a bad idea.


@DNewtonESPN: Interesting. Nate Chandler has been somewhat forgotten since Mike Remmers did such a solid job of replacing him at right tackle late last season. Chandler was a candidate at left tackle in training camp last year until Byron Bell won the job. He's still somewhat of a project, and honestly struggled at times at right tackle. He'll definitely get a chance to compete somewhere, whether it's tackle or guard where he started two years ago. But do I see him as a bona fide candidate to replace Bell at left tackle? No.


@DNewtonESPN: Mostly second-tier guys. Dave Gettleman said he won't shop at the "Dollar Store" this year. He also said he wouldn't shop at Tiffany's. I'm looking for the Macy's type who is an up and coming player.


@DNewtonESPN: I saw the speculation story that prompted this question. Since the Vikings have shown no interest in trading left tackle Matt Kalil and the Panthers have shown no interest in teaming him with center/brother Ryan Kalil, the answer is no. You'll see this need filled in free agency and/or the draft.


@DNewtonESPN: I wrote a little bit about it on Friday. (Click here). Basically, it's a small device runners have used for years to monitor their performance. Gettleman believes it helped the Panthers realize when to back off certain players in practice last season, thus reducing injuries. Many NFL teams are using them and in time you'll probably see every team in the league go to it.

video
A closer look at the areas the Carolina Panthers could address in the draft. We’ll look today at the wide receivers, who are scheduled to work out Saturday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: The Panthers will be looking for a speed receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year’s first-round pick. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown filled that role to a degree late last season, but there’s always room for improvement, particularly if that player also could fill a need as a kick returner. Brown didn’t. As much as quarterback Cam Newton needs a left tackle to protect him, he also needs more talented and reliable receivers in order to open up the offense. That this again is a deep draft at receiver could help fill that need. That the Panthers have Brown makes it less a sense of urgency to get that player in the first round unless the right player is there.

Three players the Panthers could target in the draft:

Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State: Definitely a dynamic player who can blow the top off of defenses with his speed. He’s known for getting behind the secondary and making big plays, sometimes of the one-handed variety. He had only 33 catches this past season, but for 931 yards – an amazing 28.2 yards per catch -- and 12 touchdowns. He also was a gunner in college, so he would fill another need on special teams that struggled in 2014.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: He has been clocked in the 4.3-second range, so he definitely has the speed to stretch the field. Cam Newton definitely would like to add a player from the school he led to the 2010 national championship to the roster. The knock on Coates is he’s shown limited ability as a route-runner and he hasn’t been consistent catching. Pairing him with Carolina wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl would be a benefit.

Phillip Dorsett, WR, Miami: At 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds, Dorsett is built in the mold of Steve Smith, Carolina’s all-time leading receiver. He has elite speed – maybe the fastest in Indy, reportedly shooting for 4.29 seconds in the 40 at the combine -- excels at creating separation and is willing to fight for extra yards. He caught 36 passes for 871 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so you can see he’s a home-run threat.
An analysis of how the Carolina Panthers distributed playing time among wide receivers during the 2014 season.

Analysis: That first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin led the way in snap counts at 78.8 percent says the Panthers were successful in replacing all-time leading wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released during the offseason. Smith was on the field only 74.8 percent of the time in 2013. While Benjamin had growing pains in terms of blocking and dropped passes, he caught 84 passes during the regular season and postseason combined for 1,118 yard and 11 touchdowns. Where the Panthers were hurting was quality depth. After Jerricho Cotchery, there really wasn’t any until late in the season when undrafted rookie Philly Brown emerged to add a deep threat to the lineup. Offseason acquisition Jason Avant, third in snap counts among receivers, is telling. Avant was released in mid-November. Finding a solid No. 2 receiver with speed will be a priority during free agency and/or the draft. Cotchery, as he was at Pittsburgh before coming to Carolina, remains a No. 3.

 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin ranks 10th on the NFL Players Inc.'s list of the league’s top 50 future marketing stars.

The 28th pick of the 2014 draft ranked behind New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb.

Benjamin was the only Carolina player on the list of predicted future top-selling NFL players based on breakout moments from the 2014 season.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He added 11 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games.

 
Next on my list of top moments that defined the Carolina Panthers in 2014 is one that began the season turnaround and run for a second straight NFC South title.
  • No. 6: Touchdown to Benjamin
  • Date and place: Dec. 7, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
  • The moment: Carolina ended the game's first series against the New Orleans Saints with a 9-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cam Newton to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. It culminated a drive in which Newton completed all five pass attempts for 56 yards out of the no-huddle offense. It led to a passer rating of 114.0 for a quarterback who came into the game with a career-worst 78.9 rating.
  • Why it was so significant: It wasn't so much that the pass or catch was spectacular. It was that Carolina finished an opening drive with a touchdown for only the second time all season. It was that the Panthers were successful in the red zone, where they struggled much of the season. The drive sparked a 41-10 victory that ended a seven-game winless streak and led to a four-game winning streak to finish the regular season. It instilled confidence in an offense that for much of the season had nothing to be confident about.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Upon further review, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gives the Carolina Panthers an A-minus for their 2014 draft class.

It is a significant upgrade from the "C" he gave them immediately after the draft.

Benjamin
Kiper Jr. liked that Carolina hit on first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin (No. 28 overall) to replace Steve Smith as its No. 1 receiver. Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He added 11 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason.

As Kiper Jr. correctly noted, Benjamin was inconsistent, particularly in terms of dropped passes. But overall the selection of Benjamin was solid.

Kiper Jr. applauded the selection of San Jose State cornerback Bene' Benwikere in the fifth round, calling him one of the best sleepers in the draft. He also liked the selection of fourth-round pick Tre Boston, a free safety out of North Carolina. He called third-round pick Trai Turner, a guard out of LSU, one of his favorite players in the draft. He also liked the upside of defensive end Kony Ealy, a second-round pick out of Missouri.

Where Kiper Jr. has an issue with the draft class is no tackle was selected to protect quarterback Cam Newton. There is a good reason. There wasn’t a can’t-miss left tackle at No. 28 or beyond.

Also, the Panthers believed Byron Bell or Nate Chandler could play left tackle. Bell won the job, but ultimately didn’t pan out. He ranked next-to-last among tackles rated by Pro Football Focus.

Still, to select a left tackle at No. 28 or beyond would have been a reach.

I’d argue Carolina’s class should get a solid A.

My reasons? Four of the six players -- Benjamin, Turner, Boston, and Benwikere -- started the final six games when Carolina went 5-1. Ealy was a key contributor on the defensive front playing end and tackle.

The only miss was sixth-round draft pick Tyler Gaffney, a running back out of Stanford. He was a miss only in that he suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and was claimed off waivers by New England.

Leaving Gaffney exposed was perhaps the biggest mistake with this class.

Four members of Carolina’s draft class went in the first round in a recent Sports Illustrated re-draft. The magazine had Benjamin going No. 18 to the New York Jets, Benwikere No. 21 to Green Bay, Ealy No. 25 to San Diego, and Boston No. 26 to Philadelphia.

Carolina was given Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews.

Four first-round picks is pretty strong.

Here’s a complete look at Carolina’s 2014 draft class:

Click here Insider for Kiper Jr.'s complete re-grading of the draft.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Welcome to the first installation of the Carolina Panthers Saturday mailbag for the 2015 offseason.

I apologize up front for not getting to all the questions. There were more I had space to answer, so don't let that discourage you from submitting for future mailbags.

Having said that, let's get to the ones that made it:
@DNewtonESPN: Not sure a home run, but at least a bases-loaded triple when you look at the entire class. Let's go one by one. I'd say first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin was at least an inside the park homer with 11 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards receiving. Were it not for the drops he would have been a grand slam. Second-rounder Kony Ealy, a defensive end from Missouri, steadily improved throughout the season and showed he has potential for the future. Third-rounder Trai Turner, after overcoming injuries, proved he could be an anchor at guard for years to come. Fourth-rounder Tre Boston, a free safety from North Carolina, and fifth-rounder Bene' Benwikere, a cornerback from San Jose State played big roles in Carolina's late-season surge. Injuries, particularly to Boston (sports hernia), kept them from contributing all season. The only miss was sixth-round draft pick Tyler Gaffney, who suffered a season-ending injury in training camp and then was claimed off waivers by New England. He never got a chance to prove himself. Still, four out of six starters at the end of the season is exceptional. Arguably the best class in team history.
@DNewtonESPN: I'd say 10 percent. Ron Rivera likes what Greg Hardy brings to the team in terms of production and the way he prepares week in and week out. But this won't be the coach's decision. It will have to have the stamp of owner Jerry Richardson, and I just don't see him giving it.
@DNewtonESPN: Assume you are talking Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, and not including Fozzy Whittaker in the conversation. It's hard to imagine Carolina bringing Williams back. He'll be 32 this season and Stewart has proven he can bear the load of 20 carries a game. He was one of the league's top rushers at the end of the season. The Panthers also need to start prepping young running backs for the future, and there wouldn't be enough carries for that if all three stayed on the roster. Plus, cutting Williams would free up still much-needed room on the salary cap.
@DNewtonESPN: I don't really see Carolina going after the ones you mentioned. While general manager Dave Gettleman is looking beyond the “Dollar Store,'' he'll still be looking for good value. If the Panthers spend big money in free agency on one position it will be a left tackle or a defensive lineman. Gettleman loves his “hog mollies.''
@DNewtonESPN: First, let me ask how the restoration of the Big Peach water tower is going? As for big-name free agents, as I mentioned above, not too big. Gettleman said they wouldn't be shopping at Tiffany's, remember.
@DNewtonESPN: I love mailbag humor. I'd suggest putting landmines behind him so he'll stop throwing off his back foot and step into his throws more. Seriously, he was throwing as well as I've ever seen him during training camp before the fractured ribs. The time spent not being allowed to run because of the ankle surgery forced him to focus more on fundamentals. I suspect he'll get back to that during the offseason.
@DNewtonESPN: As I wrote on Thursday, Duron Carter had a good visit that included dinner with Rivera and Gettleman, and a workout with receivers coach Ricky Proehl. He went from Carolina to Cleveland. I'm hearing the Panthers stepped up with a potential offer, but Minnesota remains the favorite for the son of former Vikings star Cris Carter. Still, the opportunity to play with Cam Newton and opposite Benjamin has to be enticing. A decision is expected next week.

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