NFC South: Darrin Reaves

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Kelvin Benjamin continues to progress through the concussion protocol, leaving the Carolina Panthers hopeful the rookie wide receiver will play in Sunday’s game at Green Bay.

 Benjamin did not participate in Thursday’s practice, but was back on the field after being a no-show on Wednesday.

The 28th pick of the draft suffered the concussion on a second-quarter hit from Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He passed a sideline concussion test and finished the game, but complained of a headache when he arrived at the stadium on Monday.

“He continues in the protocol,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “He did very well with the independent [doctor on Wednesday], and then today he did the next step with our guys and seemed to be doing very well.

“We’ll see how he’s doing tomorrow. Hopefully, he passes. If he does, great.’’

Several players expressed optimism that Benjamin, whose 31 receptions leads Carolina wide receivers, would play. If not, Brenton Bersin and Philly Brown would replace him in the rotation.

“It would be considerable, in light of who he is for us,’’ Rivera said of what it would mean to lose Benjamin for a game. “I will say I really do believe the other guys have stepped up and played well.

“With the quarterback [Cam Newton] back playing the way he’s capable and being healthy, relatively healthy, I feel good about what we can do offensively.’’

Running back Jonathan Stewart practiced full for the second straight day after missing the past three games with a knee injury. Rivera remains optimistic that Stewart will start against Green Bay.

With Fozzy Whittaker (quad) and Darrin Reaves (calf) missing Thursday’s practice, Rivera said the rotation on Sunday would be Stewart, Chris Ogbonnaya and whoever is healthy.

“Looked very good and still very confident in him,’’ Rivera said of Stewart. “He had a really nice practice. He took an increased amount of reps, so we’re feeling pretty confident now.’’

Rivera remained in a “we’ll see’’ mode on cornerback Josh Norman, who missed the Cincinnati game with a concussion and has practiced on a limited basis this week.

Linebacker Chase Blackburn, who missed his second straight practice, said the knee he injured on Sunday is improving. Rivera expressed concern on Wednesday that Blackburn may miss a few games.

Left guard Amini Silatolu (calif) and nickel cornerback Bene’ Benwikere (ankle) are not expected to play.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No player on the Carolina Panthers roster has more experience against the Cincinnati Bengals than a player who has the least amount of time on Carolina’s roster.

Running back Chris Ogbonnaya faced the Bengals five times, three times in Cincinnati, while playing for the Cleveland Browns from 2011 to 2013.

In those games, he rushed a combined 17 times for 118 yards and caught 20 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown -- the game-clincher in a 17-6 victory in Cleveland last September.

He’s passed along a few things to the coaching staff he believes might work on Sunday at Cincinnati, although he wasn’t willing to share them.

But the Panthers didn’t sign Ogbonnaya (pronounced O-benn-eye-a) because of what he did against Cincinnati. They signed him because he was familiar with Carolina’s offense, having run a similar scheme last season at Cleveland under former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

“The situation we were in, we had to find a guy that could [assimilate] very quickly to what we do," coach Ron Rivera said. “He has fit very nicely."

Ogbonnaya rushed for 24 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in his Carolina debut, a 31-24 victory over Chicago on Sunday. That was with only three days of practice.

Look for him to be worked more into the game plan against the Bengals, particularly in the passing game. In a loss to the Bengals in 2012, he caught six passes for 72 yards. He had six catches for 30 yards at Cincinnati last season in addition to 69 yards rushing on eight carries.

“There’s a lot more he can do for us," Rivera said.

Ogbonnaya will share the backfield with Fozzy Whittaker and Darrin Reaves. DeAngelo Williams (ankle) definitely is out, and Jonathan Stewart (knee) is doubtful.

Ogbonnaya can play fullback or tailback, another plus for the 28-year-old.

He’s a perfect example of the next-man-up mentality that is necessary in the NFL.

“You don’t take it for granted," Ogbonnaya said. “It’s definitely a privilege to play. It’s not a right."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have gone from one of the most expensive backfields in the NFL to one of the cheapest, at least in terms of those who will be on the field.

DeAngelo Williams ($6 million), Jonathan Stewart ($4.85 million) and Mike Tolbert ($3.35 million) represent 12.52 percent of Carolina’s 2014 salary cap.

All three -- Williams (ankle), Stewart (sprained knee) and Tolbert (IR, fractured leg) -- will miss Sunday’s game against Chicago.

They will be replaced by Darrin Reaves ($370,000), Chris Ogbonnaya ($435,882) and Fozzy Whittaker ($495,000), who represent 2.36 percent of the salary cap.

The replacement’s combined salary of $1,301,470 is less than that of 16 players on the 53-man roster.

Not that the replacements are complaining. They’re thankful for the opportunity.

For them, this is the chance to prove that perhaps one day they deserve a big salary. If opponents want to overlook them because they’re basically a group of no-names, that’s OK.

“Some people may not think that,’’ Whittaker said. “But we know the work we’ve put in and we know the amount of intensity we’re going to bring to the game. Them not viewing that as positive or negative, man, it just gives us a better edge.

“We hope they overlook us, so whenever we come [into] the game we’re able to show what we can do.’’

Whittaker and company are replacing a lot -- and not just in terms of salary. Williams, Stewart and Tolbert have a combined 2,800 carries for 12,801 yards and 106 touchdowns. Whittaker, Reaves and Ogbonnaya have a combined 184 carries for 765 yards and one touchdown.

Of that, 144 carries and 660 yards belong to Ogbonnaya, who has been dubbed “Obi-Wan Kenobi’’ by quarterback Cam Newton.

And he was signed on Monday.

Williams and Stewart were first-round draft picks in 2006 and 2008. Reaves and Whittaker were undrafted, and Ogbonnaya was a seventh-round pick.

Talk about pressure.

“I wouldn’t call it extra pressure,’’ said Whittaker, who led Carolina in rushing during the preseason with 162 yards. “Things are going to happen, and whenever it’s your turn, step up.’’

The Panthers (2-2) need somebody to step up in the run game that ranks 29th in the league, averaging 71 yards a game after averaging 126.6 yards a game last season.

As Rivera said earlier in the week, the situation at running back is a bit scary. The good news? Rivera has been impressed with the way the replacements have handled practice, from picking up blitzes to catching passes out of the backfield.

“I’m feeling pretty comfortable with those three guys right now,’’ Rivera said. “Just that we have some quality guys that have gotten some time under their belts.’’

They don’t cost a lot, either.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A decision hasn’t been made on whether the Carolina Panthers will turn quarterback Cam Newton loose for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Chicago Bears.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton will be re-evaluated on Sunday as he has been the last three weeks to determine how much the training and medical staff believes the fourth-year quarterback is ready to handle.

Newton said on Wednesday he’s still feeling pain in the left ankle that was surgically repaired in March. He said the ribs that were fractured on Aug. 22 really aren’t an issue anymore.

“We’ll see how he feels," Rivera said Friday. “That’s what it’s based upon, how he’s looked and how he’s doing. We really haven’t had the opportunity to put the girth of his plays in for him. So we’ll see."

Newton has rushed only eight times for 33 yards in three games, accounting for about one percent of Carolina’s run game. Over the past three seasons he accounted for 33.1 percent.

The injuries have kept the Panthers from running the read-option, with Newton a threat to keep the ball. That, along with injuries to the team’s top three backs, has limited the running game to 71 yards a game. Only three teams in the league have a worse average.

Rivera said Jonathan Stewart (sprained knee) likely will join DeAngelo Williams (ankle) on the inactive list Sunday. Mike Tolbert (fractured knee) already is on short-term injured reserve.

Either Darrin Reaves or Fozzy Whittaker, both undrafted players, likely will start, depending on the package Carolina opens with. Rivera said they will share the bulk of the load, with Chris Ogbannaya having a limited package. Ogbannaya was signed on Monday.

Whittaker, who missed the past two games with a quad injury, led the team in rushing during the preseason with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Reaves had 26 yards on 12 carries in Sunday’s 38-10 loss at Baltimore.

Meanwhile, defensive end Charles Johnson returned to practice after missing the past two practices with a hip flexor. The team’s third-all-time sack leader, who has been held without a sack this season, is listed as probable.

“He had a good day," Rivera said of Johnson. “He took all the reps in practice. In fact, he took more than I wanted. He looked good."

Rivera said the only game-time decision will be tight end Ed Dickson, who missed practice the past two days with an injury similar to Johnson’s.

Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis practiced all week after missing the Baltimore game with a hamstring injury and is expected to play. Cornerback Melvin White (hip) returned to practice and is listed as probable.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The return of outside linebacker Thomas Davis to practice Thursday was a good sign for a Carolina Panthers defense reeling from Sunday night's 37-19 loss to Pittsburgh.

Coach Ron Rivera said earlier in the week that Davis, who injured his hip late against Pittsburgh, would not practice Wednesday and Thursday.

He said Davis would be re-evaluated Friday, adding the absence from practice wasn't a good sign the 10th-year player out of Georgia would be ready for Sunday's game at Baltimore.

There still are no guarantees Davis will play, but to be on the field in full pads a day earlier than expected was a positive step.

Rivera said Wednesday Davis was as close as the Panthers had in terms of an emotional leader to replace wide receiver Steve Smith, who signed with Baltimore after being cut by Carolina in March.

Davis is also second on the team in tackles with 30, two behind Luke Kuechly.

"A guy that is high spirited ... that's who Thomas Davis is," Rivera said. "He's an emotional leader for us. That's the kind of guy everybody does need. You need to have a guy that's an emotional leader, a guy to get everybody rallied around and get everybody going.

"That's big."

Meanwhile, running back DeAngelo Williams continued to look good after missing the past two games with a hamstring injury. Williams, Darrin Reaves and Tauren Poole were the only healthy running backs practicing.

Poole was signed to the practice squad Thursday. He replaced Lache Seastrunk, who was released.

Jonathan Stewart (knee sprain) and Fozzy Whittaker (quad) did not practice and are unlikely to play.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For much of the past two years -- even much of training camp this year -- Jonathan Stewart was the Carolina Panthers' running back that spent most of practice riding the stationary bicycle and working with the trainer.

Talk about role reversals.

On Wednesday, Stewart and practice squad player Darrin Reaves were the only healthy backs with DeAngelo Williams (thigh), Mike Tolbert (chest) and Fozzy Whittaker (thigh) unable to participate.

On Thursday, Tolbert returned on a limited basis, but Williams and Whittaker still were held out.

"Yesterday seemed like the roles switched," said Stewart, plagued by ankle injuries the past two seasons and a hamstring injury at the start of training camp. "Usually, I'm that guy on the bike."

While coach Ron Rivera was optimistic Williams would be available for Sunday night's prime time game against Pittsburgh, Tolbert remains a question mark.

Rivera said Tolbert still isn't in position to take a hit after taking a blow to the rib area during Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit. Tolbert called the hit from defensive tackle Nick Fairely the hardest he's taken in seven NFL seasons.

Rivera hasn't ruled out the possibility that Reaves could be brought up from the practice squad to fill defensive end Greg Hardy's roster spot.

The team's 2013 sack leader on Wednesday was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.

Rivera also didn't rule out calling up a wide receiver, Stephen Hill or Marcus Lucas, if a lingering thigh injury sidelines Jason Avant. Hill played the past two seasons with the New York Jets before being released.

Avant went from limited in Wednesday's practice to not participating.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That the Carolina Panthers traded running back Kenjon Barner to the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2015 shouldn't come as a surprise.

Barner's spot on the roster was shaky at best after the performances of Fozzy Whittaker and Darrin Reaves in the first two preseason games.

Whittaker, who originally signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted rookie in 2012, rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in Sunday night's 28-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. He also caught one pass for 22 yards.

Reaves, an undrafted rookie, rushed for 19 yards and a touchdown in the exhibition opener against Buffalo.

With the top three backs set in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, only one or two spots were open at that position.

Whittaker and Reaves showed a tough, physical running style that the Panthers look for in their ball control offense. Barner didn't. He had 1 yard on eight carries in the opener and 18 yards on seven carries in the second game.

A sixth-round pick out of Oregon, where he played for current Eagles coach Chip Kelly, in 2013, he also struggled in pass protection.

Barner was competing as a kickoff and punt returner as well. But the Panthers want to give undrafted rookie wide receiver Philly Brown a hard look as the punt returner and there are others equally capable of returning kickoffs.

Getting a seventh-round pick was a bargain since Barner likely wouldn't have made the 53-man roster.