Carolina Panthers: Richie Brockel

It's easy to point to a five-game stretch on the schedule, beginning in Week 6 with trips to Cincinnati and Green Bay, followed by home games against Seattle and New Orleans and a visit to Philadelphia. Those teams were a combined 53-26-1 last season, with four winning their division and all five making the playoffs. However, I'm going to go with the first four games, at Tampa Bay, home against Detroit and Pittsburgh and at Baltimore. The Carolina Panthers have started 1-3 in each of their past three seasons. Another slow start followed by the five-game stretch above and they're done.

Complete Panthers season preview.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Richie Brockel is listed as a tight end and fullback, but he prefers to be called a tight end because he gets to do more there. He's jokingly volunteered to play defense, and he doesn't care what spot.

If there's one player who symbolizes what Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wants his team to be like when it breaks training camp today, Brockel might be it.

Smart. Fiery. Versatile. Unselfish.

The fourth-year player out of Boise State apparently is good at doing taxes, too, spending part of his offseason working for an accounting firm.

But more than anything there is a toughness about Brockel that is contagious. You could see it during one-on-one drills with the linebackers on Monday as he handled Thomas Davis and anybody else who tried to get to the quarterback -- in this case played by Rivera.

Brockel does it because it's fun, not because he gets headlines.

Have you ever seen his name in a headline before today?

No. That's because he doesn't seek headlines, although he likes carrying and catching the ball occasionally.

"Richie is a jack-of-all-trades," Rivera said. "He does things we need. He does the dirty work. There's a toughness about Richie too that I like that helps transfer over to his teammates."

The one-on-one drill with the linebackers is the best place to see Brockel's true personality come through. He fights for every square inch of turf like it's the 15th round of a heavyweight fight, whether he's going against a Pro Bowler like Luke Kuechly or a rookie trying to make a name for himself.

"That's one of my favorite drills," Brockel says. "It's one-on-one competition. There's nothing more fun than that."

Told running back Kenjon Barner didn't look like he was having much fun, getting run over almost every time, Brockel understood. Again, that's why he likes the drill.

"Well, you can get exposed because it is one-on-one, and that's what makes it so fun," he said. "You're really getting after it with one guy and there's a clear winner and loser."

Brockel likes to win. He does the little things it takes to win.

He leaves the big things, such as catching touchdown passes and running for third downs, to the starts.

In three seasons, he has rushed four times for 13 yards and caught four passes for 25 yards. He had only one of each last season. That likely won't change this season with Mike Tolbert getting most of the runs at fullback and a plethora of receiving tight ends in Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson and Brandon Williams.

Depending on the knee sprain of Mike McNeill, Carolina could carry five tight ends if you count Brockel.

But you could count Brockel almost anywhere. Beyond tight end and fullback he plays on most of the special teams.

"I try to lead by example and do the right thing," Brockel said. "That's been something that's just fallen in place for me."

That's why Brockel will make the 53-man roster. That's why Rivera would love to have 53 players like Brockel.

"The thing about guys like him," Rivera said, "you get enough good, tough physical football players and it spreads to the other players.''


Panthers Camp Report: Day 14

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • Twenty years ago, for Carolina's inaugural trip to Wofford College for camp, there were 10 consecutive days when the temperature topped 100 degrees. It was an issue. This year it's the lack of heat that concerns coach Ron Rivera. He would have liked a few more hot, humid days to prepare Carolina for what it will face in the opener at Tampa Bay. Many days have been in the 70s. One practice was so cool that Rivera had to wear a jacket. So when the humidity rose toward the end of Monday's practice, you could see players wear down and the intensity decline. Rivera spent longer than normal talking to the team afterwards, reminding "you've got to fight it because that's probably what we're going to face when we go to Tampa Bay.''
  • Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel demonstrated why he will make the final roster during one-on-one drills with the linebackers. First he handled outside linebacker Thomas Davis and then he held his own against linebacker Chase Blackburn. Rivera said Brockel demonstrates the kind of toughness he wants to see from all his players. "It transfers to the rest of the team,'' he said. Brockel jokingly said he volunteered to play defense.
  • Rivera says he hasn't settled on a starting offensive line, but it appears set with Byron Bell at left tackle, Amini Silatolu at left guard, Ryan Kalil at center, Trai Turner at right guard and Nate Chandler at right tackle. The position of most concern entering camp was left tackle. Bell started the preseason opener and was there again for Monday's practice in full pads. He left at one point with a minor issue with patella tendinitis, but Rivera insisted that won't keep him out of a game. Garry Williams finished at left tackle and likely will give relief to both tackles when the season begins.
  • Undrafted rookie running back Darrin Reaves left practice with a knee injury and likely will be held out the next few days. He's impressed with his toughness and hard-nosed running, in some ways more than Kenjon Barner. Also out were defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring), defensive end Mario Addison (flu), defensive end Kony Ealy (foot) and offensive lineman Derek Dennis (flu).
  • Wide receivers Tiquan Underwood, Brenton Bersin and Tavarres King began one segment of team drills so the coaches could get an idea of what they can do with quarterback Cam Newton. The staff is looking for a few receivers to consistently step up after the top three of Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Underwood, signed as a free agent, looked good with a catch on the first play. Then he dropped the second pass that hit him in the numbers. If you were setting the 53-man roster today, he'd be around 54 or 55.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the final session of camp in Spartanburg before returning to Charlotte, N.C., for the rest of the preseason.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • 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.''
Plethora isn't a word you hear every day at an NFL practice, but it was appropriate the way Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera used it on Wednesday.

"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.

[+] EnlargeDickson
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers will likely rely on former Ravens tight end Ed Dickson for production in the passing game.
They have a combined 20 years of experience.

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.
The Carolina Panthers secured two of their own free agents Monday in an attempt to shore up the running game.

Offensive lineman Garry Williams, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, signed a one-year deal. Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel, a restricted free agent, got a two-year deal.

Williams could figure into Carolina's plans at guard and tackle. He was the starter at right guard entering last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Seattle.

He has 21 starts since signing as an undrafted free agent from Kentucky in 2009. His presence at right guard gives Carolina more flexibility if it chooses to give Nate Chandler, who was working at tackle before becoming the regular at right guard due to injuries, a shot at replacing left tackle Jordan Gross.

Williams also has started 13 games at right tackle, so he could figure into the mix there if the Panthers choose to move starter Byron Bell into Gross' spot.

Coach Ron Rivera said at Gross' recent retirement news conference that Bell and Chandler could be in the mix.

Bell also is a restricted free agent, so look for an announcement on him before free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Brockel is a big contributor on special teams as well as a factor in the running game when Carolina brings in a second tight end or fullback for blocking.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The text arrived at 5:08 p.m. on Monday. It said: "My wife. 'Sooooooo, how long is this thing going to be around?' So who's the winner?''

Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil was kind -- or mischievous -- enough to share the message he and other teammates got from left tackle Jordan Gross.

Those who were on the team bus two weeks ago when members of the offensive line decided to grow playoff beards apparently made a lunch bet on when Dana Gross would suggest that her husband's attempt might need to go.

Guard Geoff Hangartner didn't believe it would last a week. He had Nov. 30. Tackle Byron Bell had Dec. 2. Kalil had Dec. 3. Tight end Richie Brockel had Dec. 4. Linebacker Jordan Senn had Dec. 6. Quarterback Cam Newton had Dec. 7, 8 and 9.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
AP Photo/Mike McCarnJordan Gross' beard, such as it is, has been a source of enjoyment for his Panthers teammates.
If it went past Dec. 10, Gross won.

It didn't come close.

Bell won.

Teams in sports often grow beards as a sign of unity. The Boston Red Sox rode them all the way to the World Series. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants created a "Fear the Beard'' phenomenon en route to a World Series title. The New York Islanders started a long-standing tradition of playoff beards in hockey in the early 1980s, when they traded their razors for four Stanley Cups. It's been a tradition since way before there was a "Duck Dynasty."

But what makes Gross' adventure in facial hair unique is this is his first. He's tried to grow beards before, but they'd get so splotchy -- or "crusty," as he and his teammates like to say -- that he'd shave before it had a whisker of a chance to fill in.

This two-week growth might be evidence that it never will happen.

"I can't grow facial hair and these guys all have beards, and so they told me I need to grow my hair and a beard for the playoffs,'' Gross said as the 9-3 Panthers were preparing for a Sunday night NFC South showdown against the 9-3 New Orleans Saints.

"So, being the team guy I am, I said, 'Sure, I'll be the brunt of all your jokes.'"

Trust me, there have been jokes. Many have come from Gross, who doesn't mind making fun of himself.

But it's obvious Gross never will have a beard in the same class as Kalil, who would look like the Santa Claus in the 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street'' if you dyed his thick, black hair white.

"When this started I said, 'Kalil, what are you doing [for this unity]?'" Gross said. "He said, 'I'm growing my beard longer.' I said, 'Oh, that's real daring. A thick beard to a long beard.'

"So he's growing his beard longer, and I have to grow a whole crusty beard with big spots in it."

A few of Gross' teammates declined to talk about his beard. Running back DeAngelo Williams said, "I've already let him know what I think of his beard. We've had that conversation."

It didn't sound like he was a fan.

Kalil apparently is a beard aficionado, having read a book about the advantages of having a beard, a book he shared with Jordan.

"There's actually scientific benefits," Kalil said. "They protect you from UV rays. It's a natural filter to any carcinogens in the air."

It also collects food if you're a messy eater.

As for Gross' beard, Kalil said, "It's all genetics-based, so it's not an effort on his part. But I respect the commitment to it."

Gross laughed. He's just glad the Panthers are good enough this season to warrant a playoff beard.

"I'm not afraid to look crusty if it makes the guys happy and boosts the team spirit," he said.

Then he walked away.

Then Kalil got a devilish look in his eyes and shared the text.

"He's probably going to be upset I told you this," he said. "But it's going to be hilarious."