NFC South: Brandon Williams

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Brandon Williams isn't ready to take on NBA superstar LeBron James, but the tight end does claim to be the best basketball player among the Carolina Panthers.

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.

Right?

"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.
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 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
7:15
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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.

Observation deck: Bears-Panthers

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
11:03
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The muddled cornerback situation for the Carolina Panthers might be clearing up.

Second-year pro Josh Norman, who is competing with Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Thomas for a starting job recorded two interceptions in Friday night’s 24-17 victory against the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium.

Norman intercepted Jay Cutler on Chicago’s first offensive play of the night to set up a quick touchdown. Norman also had an interception that he returned 60 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Florence and Munnerlyn had been getting most of the first-team work in camp. But Norman certainly made his case for a starting job Friday night.

Some other observations on the Panthers:

We saw the two sides of quarterback Cam Newton in some very limited playing time. He threw a great touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell on a drag route. But Newton also forced a ball into coverage and had it intercepted and returned 51 yards for a touchdown.

Rookie fullback Michael Zordich suffered a knee injury on a first-quarter kickoff. Zordich is fighting for a roster spot and the injury looked serious.

Joe Adams, who had the punt return job taken away from him last year, might have gotten some redemption with a 23-yard punt return in the first quarter.

Charles Johnson got credit for a sack, but he got plenty of help from rookie Kawann Short, who got a good push. Short looked good on several other plays.

Rookie running back Kenjon Barner got a lot of playing time and did some good things. But Barner lost a fumble. That’s not going to help him gain the trust of the coaching staff. Adams lost his job last year because he couldn’t hold onto the football and the fumble could haunt Barner.

David Gettis had a couple of nice catches. But I think Gettis faces an uphill battle to make the roster. He’s behind Armanti Edwards and Ted Ginn Jr. on the depth chart and both of those receivers made several plays Thursday night. Edwards and Ginn also have return ability and Gettis does not.

Tight end Brandon Williams had a nice catch to set up a touchdown. He came to camp as a long shot to make the roster, but he might end up sticking around.

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