Carolina Panthers: Tavarres King

Carolina Panthers cut-down analysis

August, 30, 2014
8/30/14
4:47
PM ET
Most significant move: This has to be the release of guard Chris Scott. He started eight games last season and started the last two preseason games at right guard with rookie Trai Turner nursing a groin injury. This sends a message that Turner is ready to start the opener at Tampa Bay. Conditioning has been an issue for Scott, but coach Ron Rivera told me on Wednesday that Scott had worked himself into a good position when I asked if he could win a starting job. The release shows how much the Panthers like guard Andrew Norwell and the confidence they have in Fernando Velasco to play center and guard.

Not King for this day: Wide receiver Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt were mentioned by general manager Dave Gettleman as young players they'd like to get a good look at when they released Steve Smith. McNutt didn't make the first cut and now King, who at one point appeared to be fourth or fifth on the depth chart, is gone.

No pick for Barner: The Philadelphia Eagles waived injured running back Kenjon Barner, meaning Carolina won't get the conditional seventh-round pick they negotiated in the trade. Barner had to make the team's 46-man active list for at least the first four games for the Panthers to get the pick.

Alexander on reserve/suspended: DE Frank Alexander, suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, was placed on the reserve/suspended list. He is expected to return to the 53-man roster (depth charts will be updated shortly) after the Week 4 game at Baltimore.

What's next: Look for Gettleman to keep a close eye on the waiver wire for a wide receiver/return specialist. As much as Rivera says he likes undrafted rookie wideout Philly Brown returning punts, the drops have to make him nervous. There are quite a few interesting players available, including Jets 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill.

Panthers moves: Cut -- LB Denicos Allen, CB Carrington Byndom, G Derek Dennis, CB James Dockery, LB Adarius Glanton, WR Tavarres King, S Robert Lester, WR Marcus Lucas, OT Andrew McDonald, S Tom Nelson, DT Drake Nevis, RB Darrin Reaves, DT Micanor Regis, LB D.J. Smith, CB Josh Thomas, DT Casey Walker, FB Michael Zordich, OG Chris Scott. Waived/injured -- T Kevin Hughes. Waived/injured settlement -- TE Mike McNeil, S Anderson Russell. Reserve/suspended -- DE Frank Alexander.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman mentioned Marvin McNutt among the young wide receivers he wanted to take a good look at when making the decision to cut Steve Smith in March.

He apparently didn't like what he saw.

McNutt was among 10 players released on Sunday as the Panthers reduced their roster to 79 players. Four more players must be cut by Tuesday.

Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, signed to a two-year deal during the offseason, was the most high-profile departure. He was terminated as a vested veteran.

Underwood never showed the consistency the Panthers were hoping for to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as a speed receiver and kick returner. He had one catch for 5 yards in three preseason games.

Others released were wide receivers Toney Clemons and Kealoha Pilares, defensive tackle Linden Gaydosh, defensive ends Alex Hall and Craig Roh, tackle Oscar Johnson, linebacker Anthony Morales and punter Jordan Gay.

Pilares was the top candidate to become the kickoff returner early in training camp, but like Underwood he was too inconsistent as a receiver.

McNutt was even more inconsistent as a receiver. He had one catch for 5 yards in three preseason games and seemingly dropped as many passes as he caught in practice.

The Panthers are set at the top three receivers in first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Brenton Bersin appears set at No. 4, with undrafted rookie Philly Brown next because of his return capabilities.

After that it's down to Tavarres King and Marcus Lucas for the sixth spot, although that's not a given. Watch for the Panthers to keep a close eye on the waiver wire in the upcoming weeks to possibly fill that spot.
The Carolina Panthers left Friday night's 30-7 exhibition loss at New England with more questions than answers.

Will the bruised back to quarterback Cam Newton impact him moving forward? Coach Ron Rivera said after the game it wasn't serious, but it's something to keep an eye on.

Did the line's inability to protect the franchise quarterback have more to do with two starters being out and a lack of continuity, or is there a more serious problem? Maybe, but we don't know.

Is the defense so fragile that the absence of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly makes it vulnerable? That appears to be the case, based on what New England did with the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year on the field and off.

You have questions, too. Let's get to them for a Sunday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: Deserved isn't the right word, but it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise. I know coach Ron Rivera doesn't want to use the short week as an excuse, and he shouldn't. But preparing for a preseason game on a short week and a regular-season game are two different animals. You have almost twice the players to get ready and there really isn't much game-planning. Plus, bodies haven't fully recovered from the previous game. Not to mention the offense was without starting right tackle Nate Chandler (knee) and right guard Trai Turner (groin), and Kuechly played only three series defensively. With Kuechly on the field, even without starting end Charles Johnson (hamstring), outside linebacker Chase Blackburn (back) and strong safety Roman Harper (turf toe), Carolina held New England to 41 yards and three points. The breakdowns happened after he left. Add to that you're facing one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady in his final tune-up for the season. It all kind of fell apart. It exposed some weaknesses as well, the biggest being the offensive line remains the most crucial question mark moving forward. It definitely sent a message to left tackle Byron Bell that he has to step up his game. I'll just say they got what perhaps should have been expected more than deserved.

@DNewtonESPN: A combination of both. The Patriots made a big push to improve defensively this season, and it was evident they have. The Carolina line, although basically set, remains a work in progress in that the group hasn't been together long enough to develop the continuity and total communication it takes to be effective. Having the starting right tackle and guard out didn't help. There also were basic mistakes. Running back DeAngelo Williams threw a chip block that freed end Chandler Jones for one of his two sacks over Bell. As I said weeks ago, the line has a chance to be good, but it's a fragile situation. There goes that word again -- fragile.

@DNewtonESPN: Possibly, but they really like their top eight and they won't keep more than nine at best on the 53-man roster. There's really not likely to be a more talented lineman released than what they have. But general manager Dave Gettleman loves his "hog mollies'' -- big linemen -- so he's always on the lookout for upgrades. The biggest upgrade after cuts should be at wide receiver/kick returner. I can still see that position filled by somebody who is on another roster now. The Panthers hoped some of the young players would step up after Steve Smith was cut. They simply haven't.

@DNewtonESPN: If you had asked me that two weeks ago, I would have said yes. Now I'm not so sure. Kelvin Benjamin continues to impress as the No. 1 receiver. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are clear-cut Nos. 2 and 3 -- or 2 a and 2b. Brenton Bersin simply as a wide receiver would be No. 4, but the fourth receiver right now could be undrafted rookie Philly Brown, just because he appears to be the punt returner and the team might only activate four in a game. Brown had a nice return that was called back, then really didn't get another opportunity. Watching the way the tight ends are playing, it might be more beneficial to keep five at that spot and only five wide receivers, which could make Tavarres King the odd man out.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 14

August, 11, 2014
8/11/14
5:45
PM ET
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.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "Smoo" or "Schmoo" or whatever Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin after Friday night's amazing catch, it's a keeper.

Think about it. Every time Benjamin makes a big catch the crowd can shout "Smoooooooooo" or "Schmooooooo." It will sound like a boo just like it does when the crowd screams "Luuuuuuuuuu-ke'' when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly makes a big play.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Mike McCarnKelvin Benjamin showed the ability to make key catches on Friday.
And if Friday night and training camp are good indicators, Benjamin will make plenty of big catches.

If you missed the one in the 20-18 preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills, the former Florida State standout stepped on the heel of cornerback Stephon Gilmore as he approached the goal line, stumbled to the ground, gathered himself and sprawled his 6-foot-5, 240-pound body out as he went to the ground for the catch.

"Smooooooooooo!!!"

"Schmooooooooo!!!"

We may never know what "Smoo" or "Schmoo" means. Benjamin has no idea and Newton says "the world may never know."

When pressed if perhaps it could be short for "Smooooooth," Newton replied to the reporter, "Mr. Newton, you are too impatient."

No arguments here.

Regardless, "Smoo" or "Schmoo" is a keeper.

Here are a few other leftover thoughts from Carolina's preseason opener:

  • Third-string quarterback Joe Webb did about everything the Panthers imagined when they signed him to imitate starter Cam Newton. He completed 16 of 28 pass attempts for 180 yards and a touchdown. He led the team in rushing with 30 yards on four carries. Unfortunately, when all is said and done I just don't see the Panthers keeping three quarterbacks even though coach Ron Rivera says it's a possibility.
  • With Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant locks at wide receiver, the other two or three spots remain up for grabs. Tavarres King helped his stock with four catches for 50 yards. He had another long reception negated by a holding call. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown caught three passes for 23 yards. Marcus Lucas had a costly drop. Brenton Bersin, who has impressed in camp, was targeted four times but caught only one pass for 19 yards. Stay tuned.
  • Tight end Brandon Williams deserves a spot on the final roster. The former college basketball player has been impressive in camp, and he backed that up with three catches for 50 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman continues to be a training camp phenom. The former Coastal Carolina star, who had four interceptions during one practice in 2012 and led the Panthers in picks during the 2013 preseason, had another in the end zone against Buffalo to draw praise from Rivera.
  • How valuable is kicker Graham Gano, who did not play with a sore lower back? His replacement, Jordan Gay, missed the first extra point from 33 yards. That forced Carolina to go for two after its next two touchdowns. Had Gano played and made the first, Carolina kicks the last two and wins 21-20.
  • Newton didn't get the "official" word he was being held out until he was getting treatment before kickoff even though Rivera and company never had serious plans to play him. As I said on Friday, it was the right call. No need to rush him back until he's turned fully loose to run in practice, which should be soon. "It's not how I felt, it's about my progression," Newton said. "It's a plan that's in place for me to be back there. Do I want to be out there? Absolutely I do. But have to be smart. Have to be coachable, too."
  • Sunday's 6:10 p.m. ET practice at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., has been moved to 3:10 p.m. The 3:10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday practices will be moved to 9:25 a.m. as the Panthers wrap up camp.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 11

August, 6, 2014
8/06/14
4:30
PM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • Breaking news: Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin didn't catch a pass in team drills for the first time in training camp -- aside from the days he was out nursing a bruised left knee. He didn't drop one, either. Benjamin hasn't dropped a pass in any of the team drills. The 28th pick of the draft just wasn't targeted on Wednesday as defensive coordinator Sean McDermott mixed up his schemes a bit to focus on the 6-foot-5 receiver. Many times Benjamin was pressed, and other times he was part of a zone coverage that left him blanketed. The good news: When Benjamin was covered, others were open.
  • It raised a red flag among reporters when quarterback Cam Newton didn't take snaps during the first few sessions of team drills. That he spent that time working with trainers and coaches apart from the pack while backup Derek Anderson took snaps with the first team appeared to suggest he would not play in Friday's exhibition opener against Buffalo. That still might be the case, as the Panthers are being cautious with Newton in his comeback from March ankle surgery. But as coach Ron Rivera noted, Newton was doing exactly what had been scripted for him days in advance. When Newton finally got into team drills, he completed his first six pass attempts and finished 8-for-10. The two incompletions were spikes because of a misread by the quarterback or his receivers. Newton's plan for Friday will be determined on Thursday. If he plays, it won't be for more than two series, and most of those plays will be runs. Rivera doesn't want Newton reacting to potential pressure from the Bills' pass rush and instinctively putting stress on the ankle when it isn't necessary.
  • It was a big day for undrafted rookie wide receiver Philly Brown. He got open deep on safety Robert Lester for a long touchdown catch from Newton and made at least two other nice catches. Once he went up and over safety Tom Nelson for a sideline catch. He actually landed awkwardly on Nelson. Brown is one of a handful of receivers fighting for the last spot or two, depending on whether the Panthers keep five or six receivers. As Rivera noted, Brown has been "hot and cold'' as far as consistency. He'll likely need to impress as a punt returner as well to make the final roster.
  • Wide receiver Kealoha Pilares, for now, has solidified himself as the top kickoff returner. That might be his best chance of making the team because he hasn't stood out as a receiver. He also plays on coverage teams.
  • Rivera said defensive end Charles Johnson will not play Friday if he doesn't practice Thursday. Johnson has missed the last three practices with a hamstring injury. ... Running back Kenjon Barner (leg) returned after missing four practices and looked good. ... Wide receiver Tavarres King (leg) returned after missing two practices and made a nice, one-handed catch. He is the fourth of five receivers at this point.
  • Thursday's practice is scheduled for 9:25 a.m.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin can be easily found on most days by looking for the long, blond locks flowing from the back of his helmet.

He's even easier to find these days on the field.

With first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin rehabbing a bruised left knee suffered on Sunday, Bersin is lining up with starters Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant when the team goes to three-receiver sets.

[+] EnlargeBrenton Bersin
AP Photo/Chris KeaneBrenton Bersin is making the most of his chances in training camp with the Panthers.
He caught the first pass from quarterback Cam Newton out of that formation during Friday's practice, delayed from morning to afternoon because of rain.

Bersin currently is ahead of free agent acquisition Tiquan Underwood and several young receivers, including Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Keolaha Pilares. The Panthers said they wanted to get a good look at those three when they released all-time leading receiver Steve Smith.

This is the pinnacle of a journey that began with Bersin being cut early in the 2012 camp after being signed as an undrafted free agent and making the practice squad last season.

Pay attention here: Bersin is a serious threat to make the team.

This makes him one of the more intriguing stories in camp simply because of his past. He grew up in Charlotte as a neighbor of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. He then went to Wofford College, where as a junior, his nine touchdown catches tied the school record Richardson set in 1958.

If he makes the 53-man roster, he'll be the first Wofford player to do so since Richardson played for the world champion Baltimore Colts in 1959.

For the moment, Bersin is the big man on the Wofford campus -- for the second time in his career.

“It's all surreal," Bersin said. “I've probably stayed in every single dorm on campus, from school and then camp here with the Panthers."

There's nothing surreal about what Bersin is doing on the field. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he's a big target for Newton. Having come from the run-oriented triple-option offense at Wofford, he's also one of the team's better blockers at wide receiver.

That's key for a team that wants to base its offense around a power running game. That's why the Panthers are giving him a look with the first team with Benjamin out.

"He's done a nice job for us," coach Ron Rivera said. "He's one of those guys we're interested to see how he plays when he plays against the other team's No. 1.

"He might be able to help us. He's going to get opportunities. He's earning these opportunities with the things he's done. We'll see how he progresses. The preseason games will be really big for his opportunity."

Confidence is the biggest difference between Bersin now and when he first tried out for the Panthers. But there's a reason the Panthers have kept him around for three years.

"Hey, y'all are taking note of Bersin right now, but we've known what he's been able to do the last couple of years," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He's been the guy that has come out and competed hard. He's made plays for a long time.

"If he continues the way he's doing, he's going to get opportunities. I'm looking forward to Bersin doing great things."

Safety Thomas DeCoud called Bersin a "really good diamond in the rough."

Bersin isn't taking anything for granted. As close as he is from realizing his dream of making an NFL roster, he understands the importance each practice.

“The NFL is a cutthroat business,” Bersin said. “You can't go out there and make any mental mistakes and you only have a limited number of reps, so you have to go out and perform every day."

And stand out, which he's done.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 6

July, 31, 2014
7/31/14
5:58
PM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp:
  • Cam Newton overthrows a pass off the outreached fingertips of wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Newton throws a pass high and wide to tight end Greg Olsen. Newton throws high again. Yes, the franchise quarterback struggled early on this rainy Thursday morning. It had nothing to do with his left ankle, on which he underwent surgery in March. Asked if the weather had anything to do with it, coach Ron Rivera emphatically and sternly said, "No.'' But the struggles were noticeable, enough that the Panthers ran a couple of segments again. "He was perfect," Rivera said of Newton the second time around. "Once he got into his rhythm, he practiced very well down the stretch." Newton was especially impressive on his final two-minute drills -- or 1:30, as the Panthers like to go with -- finishing a drive with a touchdown pass over the middle to Cotchery. Newton also was more active in talking to his wide receivers and tight ends about what they were doing as it related to him.
  • With first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin (bruised left knee) out another day, former Wofford standout Brenton Bersin opened as the first-string slot receiver when the Panthers opened in team drills. Normally, Jason Avant or Cotchery line up there with Benjamin on the field. Bersin's presence shows just how far he has come from an undrafted free agent cut early in 2012 to making the practice squad a year ago. Rivera said Bersin could help the team and he wants to see how he does against the first-team defense. Tavarres King also had a good day of practice. Three straight, according to Rivera, as the Panthers look to rebuild at receiver. Meanwhile, Benjamin's rehab is coming along nicely from his knee injury. There's still no timetable for his return, only that he will be re-evaluated before Friday's practice. He is not expected to miss next week's preseason opener against Buffalo.
  • With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, the Panthers are looking for more leadership out of center Ryan Kalil. Rivera has been impressed with the way the four-time Pro Bowl selection has been more vocal in camp. Kalil admits he doesn't like speaking to groups as much as Gross did, but there's no doubt his leadership up front will be key to how this rebuilt line performs.
  • The Panthers practiced kickoff returns for the first time in camp. Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood and fullback Mike Tolbert were the first pair deep. The speedy Underwood was signed as a free agent wide receiver, but he hasn't done anything particularly noteworthy there. His best way to secure a roster spot might be as a return specialist. Tolbert's primary role on kickoffs is supposed to be as a blocker, but a couple of times, the 2013 Pro Bowl selection lined up as the primary returner. Rivera quickly reminded the player known as "Fat Guy" -- among other things -- that he should return kicks only in "emergency" situations.
  • Outside linebacker Thomas Davis looked like he was searching for a contact early in practice as he and several trainers scoured the field. He actually lost a diamond earring. He stayed afterward looking for it, but no luck. Davis wasn't as much concerned with the earring as he was having to file an insurance claim on it. Maybe it will show up later, as his lost wedding ring once did.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. again on Friday. The forecast is for more rain.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- One by one reporters from around the NFL stopped by the table of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who under strict orders from his wife was eating a healthy plate of fruit at Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast.

One by one they asked about wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina's decision to cut its all-time leading receiver, which Rivera and management believe was healthy for the Panthers.

The rest of those at the NFL owners meeting apparently aren't so sure. I've had my doubts as well. So Rivera spent well over half of his 45-minute interview period talking about the newest addition to the Baltimore Ravens.

He finally had enough.

He finally became animated -- at least for him -- and defended general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to part ways with one of the most popular players in team history. He talked passionately about how Gettleman took a hit for the team.

He expressed his frustration over reports that it was personal and that Smith was a distraction to the locker room. He made it clear that it was neither.

Finally.

Had he done this two weeks ago, we might have moved on to another topic for the defending NFC South champions.

And it is time to move on.

The Panthers have. They believe they are headed in the right direction even though much of the league believes they are headed for a hard crash after a 12-4 season.

Smith
That is understandable. Even Rivera was a bit nervous when it became obvious the Panthers would not have their top four wide receivers from last season and quarterback Cam Newton needed ankle surgery.

But as I said early in the process, what did they really lose? Not that Rivera wanted to lose Brandon LaFell, or even Ted Ginn Jr. But when he explained that Carolina averaged more than 100 yards rushing in 15 of 16 games last season, and in doing so the wide receivers collectively averaged 10 catches a game, you knew what he meant.

Ten catches? That's not much to replace.

The likes of veteran Jerricho Cotchery, along with his kiddie corps of Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and whoever else you want to throw into the mix, surely can catch 10 passes cumulatively.

Now, many of those have to be the big catches. While Smith's numbers were down last season, he still made many of the big third- or fourth-down receptions that made 2013's turnaround possible.

None were bigger than the 19-yard catch into double coverage on fourth-and-10 from deep in Miami territory with 2:33 remaining. That led to a last-minute 20-16 victory that extended Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

But surely Cotchery, 31, can replace that. He had 10 touchdown catches last season for Pittsburgh. That is more than Smith (4) and No. 2 LaFell (5) combined for in 2013.

A funny aside. The Panthers never intended to go an entire week after releasing Smith without signing a wide receiver, which added to the anxiety of many. They wanted to bring Cotchery in early, but he was on vacation and couldn't.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera is confident the additions of veterans like safety Roman Harper will keep Carolina on track despite its losses in free agency.
"I really do wish people and hope people will understand there's a process," Rivera said of the team's plan. "If you do things the right way you have a chance going forward. That to me is what we've done."

And the Panthers aren't done. They plan to add other pieces in free agency and the draft. Some of them will be key.

But with the front seven of the league's No. 2 defense intact, and with Newton expected to be better than ever after surgery for a left ankle issue that has been lingering since college, Rivera has just as much or more to work with now than he had a year ago.

It's not like he has the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster.

There still are some key areas -- the secondary and offensive line at the top of the list -- that must be addressed. If the season started today, right tackle Byron Bell likely would start at left tackle, with Nate Chandler or Garry Williams on the right side.

But is that so bad? Rivera really likes Bell, who played left tackle in college, even though public sentiment is that this is a disaster. Sometimes you have to trust the coach's instinct.

The Panthers already have a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Kalil, and the guard situation is solid with Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila back from injuries that kept them from starting last season.

So the line could be as good or better than a year ago.

The biggest concern in the secondary is the nickel back. Rivera likes the competition he has for the two cornerback spots in Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

He believes Charles Godfrey, if he returns healthy from last season's Achilles injury, can play the nickel as well as free safety. He's thrilled to have New Orleans free agent Roman Harper at strong safety, and if Godfrey doesn't return, Rivera has Robert Lester and a few other young players who played well in spurts last season.

It's really no different than it was this past August when the big questions were the offensive line and secondary.

So Rivera is upbeat. He's ready to talk about something -- no offense -- other than Smith.

"We're headed in the direction of being a better team," he insisted.

Think of it like his breakfast. Sometimes you have to eat fresh fruit instead of bacon and eggs that taste good but aren't exactly good for you in the long run.
Let me introduce you to Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

First, they really are NFL wide receivers. And at the moment, they are the top two wide receivers on the Carolina Panthers roster. Maybe the best pair of starting wide receivers you've never heard of.

Until Carolina signs or drafts somebody, that is.

Meanwhile, let's get acquainted with them before I get into my Saturday morning mailbag, which had to be reintroduced for questions on Twitter after top free-agent target Hakeem Nicks signed with Indianapolis on Friday evening.

McNutt is 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds. He was born in St. Louis and went to the University of Iowa, where his 28 touchdown catches set a school record.

He has zero catches in the NFL, unless you want to count that one he caught out of bounds this past season. Philadelphia selected him in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. He was released during final cuts of training camp that year, re-signed to the practice squad and released again in May of 2013.

The Miami Dolphins claimed McNutt in May, then cut him in August. Carolina signed him in October.

When you go to ESPN.com's page on McNutt it says "no stats available" -- at least as a wide receiver. He did have two special-teams tackles for Philadelphia.

He wears No. 15.

King is 6-foot and 191 pounds. He was born in Mount Airy, Ga. and attended the University of Georgia, where he caught 135 passes for 2,602 yards and 20 touchdowns.

He has zero catches in the NFL. Denver selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 draft and eventually placed him on the practice squad. The Panthers claimed him off waivers on Oct. 21. He was exposed to the waiver wire because the Broncos needed to clear a roster spot to activate linebacker Von Miller.

When you go to ESPN.com's page on King it says "no stats available" -- offensive or defensive.

He wears No. 12.

No. 89 is available if he wants it, though.

That is about all I know, and I had to do a Google search for that.

On to the Saturday mailbag, and apologies to the questions I had to eliminate that weren't relevant after Nicks' signing.

SPONSORED HEADLINES