NFC South: Kony Ealy

The celebration was dying in the visitor's locker room at the Georgia Dome on Sunday night and Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson was standing quietly in front of his locker.

Quiet is what Johnson is known for.

But about forty-five minutes earlier the eighth-year player out of Georgia was standing in front of his teammates, addressing them in a way that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott never had seen.

Johnson made it clear he wasn't satisfied with getting to the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in his career. He made it known in an uncharacteristically boisterous tone that he hadn't won a postseason game and he wanted to badly.

"I don't know if three or four years ago, when I first got here, if that would have taken place with Charles," McDermott said on Monday as he recalled the scene following the 34-3 victory over Atlanta. "To have players is one thing. To have leaders is another.

"And Charles' leadership has been on display the last several weeks on the field, leading by example, and also some of things I've heard him say. And yesterday was the latest example of that."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera agreed. When asked why the defense has gone from the 28th-ranked unit in the NFL to the 10th over the past few months he began with Johnson.

"We've always considered him a leader, but man, the last four weeks he's been phenomenal," Rivera said.

Statistically, this hasn't been Johnson's best season in terms of sacks and quarterback pressures that have been his forte. He has 8.5 sacks, his lowest total since 2009.

But 4.5 of those have come in the past six games when Johnson's play on the field picked up. Exactly what changed, Rivera can't say for sure, although the improvement of players around Johnson has helped.

Second-round pick Kony Ealy, for example, has a sack in each of the last three games. His maturity and improvement has allowed McDermott to utilize him at tackle and end the way he did with Greg Hardy the past few seasons.

But ultimately, it came down to Johnson stepping up.

"He's a very unique individual," Rivera said of the team's second all-time leading sack leader (62.5). "He cares a lot, but he's really guarded and lately he's been very emotional and very outspoken, which in my opinion is very uncharacteristic of him. But I'm glad he's doing it.

[+] EnlargeCharles Johnson
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCarolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson lands a hit on Falcons QB Matt Ryan during their Week 17 game at the Georgia Dome.
"You talk about guys that can back it up by what they do, that's impressive to me. He's been that way for us, especially the last four weeks."

Rivera has admitted on several occasions the defense didn't begin playing to its potential until after a 38-17 loss at Green Bay. That's when he said players moved on from the possibility of Hardy returning from the commissioner's exempt list.

Johnson was one of those that benefited most from Hardy, who is awaiting a 2015 trial on his domestic violence case. With the 2013 sack leader on the opposite side, it was tough for defenses to match up.

Not having him has been an adjustment.

"I do think there was a part of us that said, 'Guys, we've got to get past it. We've got to move on,' " Rivera said. "And it's hard because he was such an integral part of what we had planned for going into this year and what he was for us last year.

"But I think it's also been part of what's helped with Charles now, is knowing that, 'Hey, I'm the guy.' More so than, 'Hey, I'm sharing this with the other guy.' I'm excited about who he is."

Johnson is driven, perhaps more than any point of his NFL career that began in 2007 when the Panthers selected him in the third round.

You can hear the passion in his voice as he talked about what the Panthers (7-8-1) have to improve on to get him that elusive playoff win.

"If guys come together like they did today, we can do anything," Johnson said.

Johnson always has set the bar high for his teammates with his work ethic. He's always one of the first to arrive at the stadium and one of the last to leave. He's always working out on Tuesdays, typically a day off for players.

Now he's setting the bar high with his words as well.

"I just went through and talked about it to his teammates about guys playing and guys playing well and doing their job," Rivera said. "He has stepped up and raised his game to a whole new level."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The message sent by the Carolina Panthers with Tuesday’s personnel moves was clear: perform or look for work elsewhere.

Starting cornerback Antoine Cason was cut two days after giving up an easy 17-yard touchdown catch with 16 seconds left in the first half of Sunday’s 31-13 loss at Minnesota.

[+] EnlargePhilly Brown
AP Photo/Jim MonePhilly Brown took advantage of his playing time on Sunday with this touchdown reception.
Backup linebacker Jason Williams was released after missing an assignment on the first of two blocked punts returned for touchdowns. That he didn’t take responsibility postgame may have played into him being released as well.

Coach Ron Rivera praised linebacker Ben Jacobs for taking the blame on the second block.

There were earlier messages that things were headed in this direction as well. Wide receiver Jason Avant was released two weeks ago after questioning the play calling in the final minutes against Atlanta. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown was given his playing time.

In October, Charles Godfrey was released after consecutive poor performances against Cincinnati and Green Bay.

These decisions and a rash of injuries to the offensive line have left the Panthers with potentially six rookies or second-year players starting and several others getting significant playing time in this Sunday’s game at New Orleans.

It’s a game, by the way, Carolina (3-8-1) has to win in order to keep its dying hopes of winning the NFC South alive.

Let’s take a look at the youth movement:

  • CB Bene’ Benwikere – Were it not for an ankle sprain that kept him out six weeks he might have had a more prominent role earlier. The fifth-round pick out of San Jose State was the nickel corner before the injury. He replaced Cason as an every-down corner in the second half against Minnesota and played well enough to earn a positive grade (plus-1.6) from Pro Football Focus. He also forced a fumble. That he has emerged should be no surprise. The Panthers liked him so much they traded up to get him in the fifth round of the draft.
  • FS Tre Boston – A sports hernia sidelined the fourth-round pick for much of offseason workouts and the preseason, so his progress has been slowed. But after Thomas DeCoud bit on a touchdown catch in the first quarter against Minnesota, Boston got the call. He had to leave with an ankle injury, but that isn’t expected to keep him from playing this week.
  • LG Andrew Norwell – The undrafted rookie out of Ohio State was forced into the lineup when starter Amini Silatolu began having knee issues. He played well enough that when Silatolu attempted to return last week Norwell stayed at guard and Silatolu went to tackle.
  • RG Trai Turner – The third-round pick out of LSU has been in and out of the lineup due to injuries since training camp. He graded out at minus-2.6 against Minnesota, but the Panthers believe he will be a starter for many years.
  • RT Mike Remmers – The second-year undrafted player out of Oregon State made his first career start against Minnesota and did remarkably well. PFF gave him a plus-0.8 grade, which compared to what Carolina’s other tackles have done this season is a major accomplishment. Left tackle Byron Bell graded out at minus-6.2.
  • WR Kelvin Benjamin – The first-round pick out of Florida State has been the starter all season, so he’s not new to the lineup. He’s having a stellar season with 57 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns.

Other rookies expected to see an increased role include second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, Brown and cornerback Cary Byndom.

The Panthers haven’t admitted to making mistakes in the offseason with the veterans these players are replacing, but their message is clear moving forward.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Statistics say the Carolina Panthers miss defensive end Greg Hardy.

Since Hardy was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved, the Panthers have allowed 37 or more points in three of four games. They allowed 513 yards, the second most in team history, in Sunday's 37-37 tie at Cincinnati.

In the four games since Hardy was removed from the 53-man roster Carolina has allowed an average of 34 points and 442 yards. The defense has gone from a top five ranking in the NFL to 26th.

A year ago, the Panthers gave up 15.06 points and 301.2 yards a game en route to a No. 2 ranking. If you're counting, that's about 19 points and 141 less yards per game than in these past four games.

"It would be asinine for me to sit up here and say his loss has no impact on us," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Monday. "But at the same time it is the next-man mentality. We can sit up here and exonerate me by just saying that's the reason why [the defense has struggled], but that's not the reason why.

"It comes down to basic fundamentals. And it's not the guys that replaced him that are the only ones making mistakes. There are a few other guys that need to play more disciplined."

Rivera won't use Hardy's absence as an excuse, and shouldn't. To do so would be to suggest he doesn't have confidence in the players he has.

"It would be easy to just sit here and say that, but I'm not gonna," he continued. "That would be letting a lot of people off the hook, me included. The truth of the matter is these guys are professionals and they need to play and they need to play better."

But when you remove a player that led the team in sacks last season with 15 and quarterback pressures with 38, a player who could play the run as well as rush the passer and occasionally drop into coverage, it has an impact.

Look no further than Sunday's opponent, the Green Bay Packers. When quarterback Aaron Rodgers was healthy and playing the Packers were 6-2 last season. Without him they were 2-5-1.

Hardy had the kind of impact on Carolina's defense that Rodgers has on Green Bay's offense.

Rivera said the defense is a developing unit and "this team is in flux." One thing is for certain, the Panthers (3-2-1) can't count on the defense to win games the way they did a year ago.

The unit that defined Carolina during a 12-4 2013 season is being gashed for big plays almost every week. Rivera said the gap control was excellent against Cincinnati outside of the 89-yard touchdown run by Giovani Bernard.

But even without that play the Panthers still gave up 424 total yards, about 123 more than last season's average.

Carolina gave up five or more yards on 35 of 75 plays against Cincinnati. That's 46.6 percent.

Thirty-three percent is what Rivera calls acceptable.

"Yep, way too high," he said.

The players trying to replace Hardy say they can do the job.

"Everybody just needs to let us play football, and we can get this damn thing going," rookie defensive end Kony Ealy said. "Ain't nobody got to worry about us."

When asked if there was worry, Ealy said only from outside the locker room.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott insists the effort is there and that it's all about correcting mistakes. He won't use Hardy's absence as an excuse, either.

"Look, Greg is a phenomenal player," McDermott said. "We all know that. The thing that I have to focus on now is Greg's not here. I'm coaching the guys in that room, just like the other coaches are.

"Greg is on my mind because I hope he's doing well. My primary concern is the guys in that room and getting this defense to improve each and every day. No matter if we were the No. 1 ranked defense or whatever and we were undefeated, we've got to improve every day."

Statistically, there is plenty of room for it.

All hands on deck for Panthers at DE

October, 2, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- And then there were three.

There was a time not too long ago when the Carolina Panthers were as deep as any team in the NFL at defensive end.

Pro Bowler Greg Hardy was starting on the left side after leading the team in sacks last season with 15. Charles Johnson, third on the team's all-time sack list, was on the right side.

Behind them was Wes Horton, Mario Addison and second-round draft pick Kony Ealy. Waiting in the wings was Frank Alexander, serving a four-game suspension.

But as Addison stood on the practice field on Wednesday, reality sunk in.

"There were only three of us," he said.

Hardy is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. Alexander is suspended for the next 10 games for violating the league's substance abuse policy after coming off a four-game suspension.

And Johnson was in the training room for the second straight day with a hip flexor.

Coach Ron Rivera is optimistic Johnson will return on Friday, but as we've seen throughout this season when you don't practice on Wednesday or Thursday you typically don't play.

So the Panthers are making adjustments. They are rotating defensive tackle Kawann Short (6-3, 315) and linebacker Jason Williams (6-1, 245) at end. They've even worked tackle Star Lotulelei (6-2, 320) there some.

It's all hands on deck.

Rivera spent more time on Thursday talking about Williams, a former end in a 3-4 scheme, in that role. But that's assuming Johnson can go. If he can't, Short could play a bigger role.

His teammates don't seem concerned.

"First of all, you have to know what you're doing, and Kawann knows all the defensive end plays, alignment, all that kind of stuff," Horton said. "He brings his own strengths to the table. Being a bigger guy, he can bring a solid power rush.

"He can play it. I know all the coaches are confident he can play it. If Charles isn't ready to go, there's a good chance he'll be out there."

Addison is comfortable if Short or Lotulelei moves outside.

"He will kill it, man," he said specifically of Lotulelei. "Anything you throw in front of Star, he'll kill it."

The added size on the edge definitely could stop the bleeding for a defense that has surrendered 391 yards rushing the past two weeks against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Short and Williams also could create matchup issues on the corner that could help create pressure for a unit that has only one sack the past two games.

Johnson, who has 54 career sacks, has none in four games.

"One thing [Williams] showed in the preseason is he's a terrific blitzer coming off the edge," Rivera said. "If he was a little bit taller, he would be a starting outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense -- that's for sure."

Ealy said the past two days have been "heavy" concerning the extra reps the three healthy ends have taken. He also said that's good from the standpoint of added conditioning and experience.

"I'm very comfortable," the former Missouri standout said. "I'm not worried if somebody doesn't start or can't go. ... You'll see a different side of Kony Ealy. You'll see the player I was in college."

The numbers may be down, but the confidence isn't.

"We've got to step it up more if Charles doesn't play," Addison said. "We've still got a couple of men left that can get the job done."

To bring heat, Panthers call 'NASCAR'

September, 19, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On at least one play during Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit the Carolina Panthers lined defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison in the middle at tackle in order to create more quarterback pressure.

It's called, appropriately, "NASCAR."

"We put four guys out there and say, 'Go fast,'" coach Ron Rivera said on Friday.

The formula is simple, and one that might have to be used more to apply pressure with 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy on leave of absence until his domestic violence case is resolved.

The intent is to put as much pressure as possible on the quarterback with the front four, allowing the linebackers to drop into coverage. It works hand-in-hand with the cornerbacks being physical with wide receivers in the first five yards, to throw off the play's timing.

It's a philosophy that helped Carolina lead the league in sacks last season with 60, without having to blitz a lot.

Rivera said there will be times when you will see defensive tackle Kawann Short surrounded by three ends, or four ends and no tackles. It will always be the fastest and freshest players the Panthers have in obvious passing situations.

Regarding fresh, Rivera said he has to find a way to cut down on the snap counts for Johnson. With Hardy out against Detroit, the team's third all-time leader in sacks (54) was on the field for 62 of 72 defensive snaps.

That was 18 more than the next defensive lineman and 28 more than the next end.

Johnson was double-teamed much of the time because the Lions didn't have to worry about Hardy on the other side. He had no sacks for the game and has none for the season.

"Will he continue to get doubles like he did last week?" Rivera said. "If he's getting doubled, then other guys have got to step up, a la what happened with Mario [2.5 sacks]."

Among others Rivera cited as needing to step up was second-year tackle Star Lotulelei, who also has no sacks.

"We're going to be physical," Rivera said. "We're going to buy that extra step. But we want the four fastest to go, just to get up in there and haul butt."

Rivera said he likely will stick with the rotation he used to replace Hardy at right defensive end against Detroit. Wes Horton started and played mostly on first and second down. Addison played mostly on third down and pass rush situations.

Second-round draft pick Kony Ealy began mostly on third down, but worked more into the rotation on first and second. He could be used to give Johnson a break.

"We've got to be smart," Rivera said. "One of the things we've got to be aware of is that we don't wear Charles out."

Meet Wes Horton, son of a TV 'gladiator'

September, 19, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wes Horton doesn't have a catchy nickname like Greg Hardy's, aka the Kraken, the player he and a platoon of others are replacing at right defensive end for the Carolina Panthers.

So let's give him one.

How about Gemini Jr.?

Before he began chasing quarterbacks, Horton chased his father around the original set of "American Gladiators," a television phenomenon that ran between 1989 and 1996 featuring amateur athletes against the show's gladiators in tests of agility and strength.

[+] EnlargeMichael Horton
Courtesy Wes HortonMichael Horton was Gemini, one of the six original "American Gladiators." Here, he holds his son Wes, left, a Panthers defensive end, and his son Shane, right, a linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts.
Michael Horton was one of the six original gladiators. He was known as Gemini, apparently fitting because of his split personality: calm one second, aggressive the next.

"It was a hot show," said Wes, who was born a year into the show. "[My dad] was kind of the man around town for a while. It was cool to play on the sets and travel around the country and do all kinds of crazy contests, throwing people around and being a big, strong guy."

Wes still throws people around, only now it's offensive tackles and running backs -- and an occasional quarterback. He got his first start in Sunday's 24-7 victory over Detroit after Hardy was placed on the inactive list.

With Hardy out indefinitely after going on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved, Horton will get more opportunities.

Next up is Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game at Bank of America Stadium.

"It's just going to come down to more snaps from all of us and being consistent with those snaps," said Wes, who will share the position with Mario Addison and Kony Ealy. "It's not enough to show flashes and have a big play here and move on to the next game.

"We've got to be impact players."

Wes' father was all about flash. From a tight red, white and blue spandex costume to swinging on ropes and tackling contestants, he was a muscle man's superhero.

"I can still get in the spandex very easily," said Michael, now a consultant on physical fitness in the Los Angeles area. "I'm in as good a shape now as I was then."

Wes isn't so sure about his father wearing spandex, but the being-in-shape part he won't deny.

"He trains me in the offseason," Wes said. "Pretty much every aspect of football, he shoots me advice. He's my No. 1 critic after games. I always call him and say, 'Pop, how'd I do?'"

Michael knows football. He spent nine years between the NFL, Canadian Football League and USFL before turning to television. While he never made it past what was then the taxi squad in the NFL, he always knew Wes would.

"He probably should have gotten drafted, but that's another deal in itself," Michael said of his 6-foot-5, 270-pound son, who was signed by Carolina as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Cal in May 2013. "He's on course to be a very good football player, and his work ethic will get him there."

Wes played mostly on first and second down against Detroit. He was the run-stopper, the player who did all the dirty work. Addison got the headlines with 2.5 sacks even though he played six fewer snaps (28).

Wes is OK with that, too, although he'd one day like to be an every-down player.

"Wherever they want to put me on the field, I'm more than willing to step in there and give it everything I have," said Wes, whose brother Shane is a linebacker for Toronto in the CFL.

In some respects, Wes is like his father. He's a gentle giant off the field. Then, when the whistle blows, he turns on the aggression.

But he wants to make one thing clear: He never dreamed of wearing spandex and being an America Gladiator. As much fun as he had playing on the Powerball, Swingshot and Eliminator on the show co-hosted by former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, his goal was to be in the NFL.

Wes still could use a nickname, though.

Let's let his father pick one.

"Oh, gosh," Michael said. "He would probably say something easy like 'Terminator.'"

Panthers show depth in replacing Hardy

September, 15, 2014
Matthew Stafford and Wes HortonAP Photo/Mike McCarnWes Horton helped the Panthers keep pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Replacing defensive end Greg Hardy wasn't as easy as it looked for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

It took two players.

You could argue three.

Wes Horton played first and second down for much of the 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions. He occasionally gave way to second-round draft pick Kony Ealy. He was the run-stopper, doing the dirty work that doesn't draw headlines.

Mario Addison came in on third down and obvious passing situations. He got the headlines with 2.5 sacks.

Hardy can stop the run and get the headline sacks. He had a team-best 15 sacks a year ago to earn his first Pro Bowl berth. He also can play tackle and drop back into pass coverage.

[+] EnlargeMario Addison
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsMario Addison (97) notched 2.5 sacks of Stafford.
But Hardy didn't play on Sunday. The Panthers deactivated him under intense public scrutiny surrounding his July 15 conviction for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.

Hardy is arguably the team's most valuable defensive player outside of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Hardy played 51 of 56 snaps in the opener at Tampa Bay, a 20-14 victory. Addison was in for 10 snaps and Horton 13.

"Greg is a high-energy guy," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said after the victory over Detroit. "He brings an attitude to our team, and we definitely missed him out there."

Coach Ron Rivera said Hardy will return and play again this season. He didn't say whether it would be Sunday night against Pittsburgh or the following week at Baltimore, but he made it clear Hardy likely would play before his Nov. 17 appeal in front of a jury.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they have the numbers to replace him. And after two more games, they'll have even more depth with Frank Alexander returning from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse program. Rivera said Alexander was the most valuable player in training camp.

What Sunday showed was the Panthers not only have one of the best fronts in the NFL, they have one of the deepest.

"Absolutely," Horton said. "It doesn't matter who gets the start. Everyone is trained at a high level."

Against Detroit, they all played at a high level. Let me tell you about the two main characters.

Horton (6-foot-5, 265) signed with Carolina as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Southern California last season. He had two sacks and eight tackles in 2013.

He wears 96. He has a tightly trimmed chinstrap beard. His dad, Mike Horton, was Gemini on "American Gladiators." Wes had two sacks last season, both against Tampa Bay.

Addison is a fourth-year player from Troy, originally signed by the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2011. After bouncing between Indianapolis and Washington, he finally settled in at Carolina near the end of the 2012 season.

He had 2.5 sacks in a reserve role last season. The Panthers gave him a two-year extension in June. During a trip to Puerto Rico to celebrate he fell off a jet ski and thought he was going to drown.

"I've never been so scared in my life," he said during training camp. "I don't know how to swim, so without the life vest I would have died."

Addison wears No. 97. He also has a beard, but it is long and scruffy. He is considered undersized at 6-2 and 255 pounds. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed.

"He's one of the fastest guys I've ever seen at practice," center Ryan Kalil said. "The guy runs around like he's a linebacker."

The speed came in handy late against Detroit when the Lions had to pass. Their tackles couldn't match Addison's first step coming off the edge.

Rivera calls him a "situational football player for us."

"He is speed off the edge and a forceful special teams guy," he said. "Guys understand their roles, and they do their roles the best that they can. That was a great example for us."

It also was a reminder of how much it takes to replace Hardy.

Grading the Panthers' rookie class

August, 30, 2014
Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin jammed his middle finger and let a touchdown pass slip through his hands during Thursday night's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh.

Otherwise, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver out of Florida State had a strong preseason and established himself as the No. 1 target the Panthers were looking for when they released Steve Smith in March.

The finger doesn't appear to be anything that will be an issue, and Benjamin played longer than he was scripted to because he wanted more time on the field. Two of his four catches for 56 yards were in traffic over the middle.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Don WrightKelvin Benjamin has been everything the Panthers were expecting when they drafted him in the first round.
"We wanted Kelvin to get some good reps,'' coach Ron Rivera said after the 10-0 victory that gave Carolina a 2-2 preseason record. "We wanted to give him the opportunity to get good plays. He is still young and is still learning, but is still a valuable part.''

As the Panthers begin preparing for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, let's take a look at the entire 2014 draft class and how it will impact this season:

  • WR Kelvin Benjamin (first round, No. 28) -- Some teams had Benjamin rated as a second-round pick, saying he was too inexperienced and unproven. The Panthers felt lucky to get him in the first. He played like a top-10 pick during the preseason, leading the team in catches with 12 for 173 yards and a touchdown. Look for him to be quarterback Cam Newton's top wide receiver target this season. Grade: A-minus
  • DE Kony Ealy (second round, No. 60) -- The Panthers had Ealy ranked as a late first-round pick, but he's performed more like a second-rounder. He got off to a slow start in training camp, but maybe some of that had to do with the depth at his position. When you're being compared to Pro Bowler Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, third on the team's all-time sack list, you're going to pale. Grade: C-plus
  • OG Trai Turner (third round, No. 92) -- He was the front-runner to be the starting right guard from the get-go, and was performing at a high level before a groin injury sidelined for him the last two preseason games. Whether or not he starts in the opener remains to be determined because Chris Scott has played well in his absence, but he'll play major role. Grade: B-plus
  • S Tre Boston (fourth round, No. 128) -- He underwent sports hernia surgery in June and never really got a chance to earn a roster spot. Odds are he'll be placed on injured reserve with the hope to later return to the practice squad. The Panthers like his future. Grade: Incomplete
  • CB Bene' Benwikere (fifth round, No. 148) -- Perhaps the biggest surprise of this draft class. He has played well enough to at least split time with veteran Charles Godfrey at the nickel position. Grade: B
  • RB Tyler Gaffney (sixth round, No. 204) -- The Patriots did what Carolina should have done with the former Stanford star early in camp. They stashed him on injured reserve when the roster was cut to 75. Carolina released Gaffney, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp, hoping he would clear waivers and they could place him on injured reserve. New England spoiled that plan by claiming what Carolina considered one of the better blocking backs in the draft. Had Gaffney not been injured he likely would have been the fourth back. The good news is Carolina found Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason. Grade: F

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You hear it all the time, how an athlete plays harder and produces more in the final year of his contract because he's playing for his future.

When you add to off-the-field issues that said athlete has to overcome to help his image and marketability, you'd expect an increase in effort.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonGreg Hardy has put legal issues aside and shown an impeccable work ethic during the Panthers' training camp.
So it should come as no surprise that the two players Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera mentioned as his training camp MVPs -- at least during the time spent at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. -- were defensive ends Frank Alexander and Greg Hardy.

Alexander has been suspended the first four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. While he has one more year left on his deal, his salary-cap number ($777,563) is low enough that the defensive line-rich Panthers wouldn't hesitate to cut him if he didn't perform at a high level.

Hardy has been found guilty by a judge of assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder, a verdict he is appealing to a jury trial. The 2013 Pro Bowl selection is not guaranteed anything after the $13.1 million he will receive this season as the team's franchise player.

In other words, how both perform will determine their value and where they play next season.

Rivera wasn't surprised by Hardy's effort. Hardy always practices hard, so it would have been a bigger shock had he not done well.

That Hardy was able to main such a high level with legal issues hanging over him doesn't surprise Rivera, either.

"No, I'm not concerned with Greg, because he's able to take what he's able to focus on, and he's focusing on this, and we all know there's nothing he can do about it until the process takes care of itself," Rivera said of Hardy, whose next court date is Nov. 17, with the likelihood of being pushed to 2015.

Hardy never was better than Tuesday's final practice in Spartanburg, dominating the tackles and guards on one-on-one pass rush drills and knocking down two passes in coverage during team drills. He got to one more than 20 yards downfield covering tight end Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver last season.

Alexander is a different situation. A fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2012, inconsistency has kept him off the field. According to Rivera, that had more to do with his lack of playing time last season than being ejected in the opener after throwing a punch at Seattle offensive lineman Breno Giacomini.

"The penalty is not the concern," Rivera said. "It's always consistency with anybody that we rotate."

It took Hardy into his third season to produce the consistency that made him one of the league's best pass rushers. He went from a combined seven sacks in his first two seasons to 11 in his third and 15 in his fourth.

Rivera would like to believe Alexander's progression has more to do with maturity than playing for his future.

"He knows he made a mistake and he knows he's got to make it right," Rivera said. "And he'll be ready to go when we get out of that four weeks, and we'll go from there.

"For a player that continued to make mistakes like he was for a first-, second- and third-year player, this is about when you see guys; either they're going to truly show or take a back seat to some of these young guys."

Alexander has plenty of young guys breathing down his neck. The Panthers drafted Missouri end Kony Ealy in the second round and signed Mario Addison to a two-year extension averaging $1.2 million. Wes Horton also is playing well.

"No matter how you look at it, whether it's intended or not, the message has been sent," Rivera said.

And no matter how you look at it, the Panthers will benefit from having two players as motivated as their training camp MVPs.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- There had to be some irony in that Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera's commentary on jawing came six years ago to the day that wide receiver Steve Smith was sent home from training camp for hitting a teammate.

Rivera had no idea Saturday was the anniversary of Smith's well-documented fight with cornerback Ken Lucas, resulting in a two-game suspension for Carolina's all-time leading receiver.

But if you want to read between the lines, this might explain why the Panthers released Smith in March.

Rivera has denied repeatedly that the 35-year-old Smith was cut because his fiery temper was a distraction at times. He had to, as Smith was a popular player that one day should have his name on the Wall of Fame.

But on Saturday, after a heated practice in which there was a lot of jawing between the offense and defense during a goal-line series, Rivera made his views on jawing clear.

He said it distracted from the focus of getting better. He said it hurt feelings.

Nobody jawed more in practice than Smith. Probably no player in the 20 years of the organization has hurt more feelings.

This isn't to detract from all the great things Smith did as a receiver. The intensity that led to jawing is one of the things that made him great.

But that intensity also put the spotlight on Smith for things other than his performance, which distracted from improvement. The "Ice up, son" T-shirts that came out after Smith used those words on New England's Aqib Talib after the cornerback exited a heated Monday night game with a hip injury is a prime example.

That fire also can be motivational. After Carolina lost its opener last season to Seattle, Smith defiantly predicted the Panthers would meet the Seahawks again in the Super Bowl.

They came up two games short, losing to San Francisco in the NFC Divisional playoff game.

But with Smith obviously at the end of his career and the Panthers looking to move forward with quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly being the vocal leaders, the decision to let him go really wasn't as difficult as it seemed.

That doesn't mean the Panthers won't jaw with each other, as Saturday was evidence of that. But it is more good-natured, like what Newton did to motivate rookie defensive end Kony Ealy.

And Newton's first move after practice was to give Ealy a playful pat on the back and offer words of encouragement.

No such exchange happened between Smith and Lucas.

Smith wasn't going to change his ways. He's already had a fight with one of his new teammates at Baltimore, getting into a shoving match during a June minicamp with cornerback Lardarius Webb.

The Panthers, for the record, haven't had a fight in training camp. Nothing has distracted them from improving.

Read between the lines.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • It sounded like a car crash. Only instead of crumpled sheet metal, fullback Mike Tolbert crumpled to the ground. On easily the biggest hit of training camp in the most physical practice, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ran into Tolbert on fourth-and-goal inside the 1-yard line so hard that you could hear it at The Beacon (Spartanburg's famous greasy spoon) a few miles away. OK, maybe it wasn't that loud. But it did turn heads. And it started the eruption of a defensive celebration that didn't go unnoticed by Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "Panthers won today," Rivera said with a smile as though the play came on the final second of the Super Bowl to secure the victory. Kuechly said it was "payback" for Tolbert running over him on third-and-1 at the 15-yard line in the Pro Bowl. "I had to get him back," Kuechly said. For the Panthers it was a nice reminder that the league's second-ranked defense in 2013 will be a force again. It also was a reminder that Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is deserving of all the accolades he gets. "It was a very big statement," Rivera said. "To be quite honest the offense was getting after the defense and they needed to make something happen -- and they did."
  • Saturday marked the return of the Joshes -- cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Josh Norman. For Thomas, it was his first appearance in camp after being placed on the non-football injury list with a back injury. Neither did anything to stand out, and it's going to be tough for both to make the final 53-man roster again. Much depends on how many cornerbacks the Panthers keep. Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Bene' Benwikere (had yet another interception on Saturday) and Charles Godfrey (sat out of practice with soreness in Achilles) appear to be locks. If the Panthers keep five cornerbacks, then one of the Joshes is out.
  • Rivera recently said Cason eventually might get into the punt return business. Eventually has arrived. Cason led off the group on Saturday. Benwikere also got into the mix. Cason last returned a punt in 2012 -- one for nine yards. The last time he had more than one in a season was 2014, when he had 14 for a 16.5 average. This remains a spot the Panthers could look to fill with the waiver wire late in camp. Yes, they miss Ted Ginn Jr.
  • With starting defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder contusion) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) out, second-round pick Kony Ealy got more opportunities. He still struggled, to the point quarterback Cam Newton began taunting him, but did more good things than he has in any other practice.
  • The Panthers practice again on Sunday at 9:25 a.m. before getting an off day on Monday. Rivera indicated prior to practice that the team would go without pads after going five straight days in them. That Saturday's practice was so physical as the team focused on short-yardage situations and goal-line plays makes that more likely.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Add motivator -- or some might say agitator -- to the many talents of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

It was late in Saturday morning's practice. Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy was struggling. He couldn't get around reserve offensive tackle David Foucault, a Canadian player who earned a roster spot after being invited to a rookie minicamp.

Newton let Ealy know it, jawing at the second-round pick out of Missouri in a way only Newton can do with his loud, sometimes high-pitched voice accompanied with a big smile.

That seemingly made Ealy, a player the Panthers had graded as a late first-round pick, agitated.

Certainly more frustrated.

Newton didn't let up. Ealy didn't give up.

And after practice, Newton met Ealy with a playful hug to let him know everything would be all right.

"The nice part is Cam went up to him afterwards and put his arm around him and said, 'Hey, that's it. That's what you've got to learn to do. You've got to learn to push,''' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "Quite honestly, things have been easy for [Ealy] because he's such a great football player and he had a great college career.

"Now you get up here and it's a little bit different game. There's a lot of pressure for guys to perform and it was great to see somebody put pressure on him and go up and put his arm around him and say, 'Hey, you're going to get it. You're going to get it.' '

Perhaps this will be a turning point for Ealy, who has done little to impress thus far in camp.

With starting ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy (shoulder contusion) nursing minor injuries, he got more reps than normal on Saturday. There were times when the 6-foot-4, 275-pounder showed some of the things the Panthers saw before the draft.

The Panthers need that to help take the league's No. 2 defense in 2013 to the next level. They need Ealy to spell Johnson and Hardy without a falloff in performance.

"He did some nice things,'' Rivera said. "I'm really excited about watching this tape.''

Rivera isn't a big fan of jawing because it can take away the focus and energy that should be on improvement. It also can hurt feelings, as Ealy's seemed to be.

But in this case, Rivera was OK with it because Ealy needed somebody to push him.

That it was his franchise quarterback doing the pushing just made it more entertaining.

"He jawed with me, too,'' Rivera said of Newton. "He's rolling now. He's rolling.''

Panthers Camp Report: Day 7

August, 1, 2014
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Carolina Panthers training camp:
  • Give coach Ron Rivera credit for making the right call on the weather. He postponed the 9:25 a.m. practice until 1 p.m. after studying the weather flow and seeing a window in the heavy rains that have dropped several inches on the area the past couple of days. The forecast was spot on, but Rivera (wearing a jacket) was concerned with the unusually cool temperatures -- low 70s instead of low 90s -- as the team prepares for the opener in Tampa Bay where the heat and humidity are sure to be through the roof.
  • Third-string quarterback Joe Webb ran the read option with the first team during team drills, throwing a touchdown pass to Brenton Bersin. Webb was signed as a free agent from Minnesota to emulate starting quarterback Cam Newton, who is coming off left ankle surgery. The Panthers like what Webb brings to the offense in that he takes carries off Newton in practice, gets the offensive line used to working with a mobile quarterback and is insurance should Newton reinjure the ankle. Carolina kept only two quarterbacks last season, but Rivera says three are a distinct possibility this year. It makes sense on many levels. Webb hasn't looked bad, either.
  • With Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy practicing in shorts, second-round draft pick Kony Ealy got a little more work. He made an impression early, blasting past the right tackle and getting in backup quarterback Derek Anderson's face so fast that he threw an errant pass that rookie corner Bene' Benwikere intercepted on the sideline. He had a few moments in one-on-one drills as well. That's the kind of pressure the Panthers expected when they drafted Ealy out of Missouri. Now he just needs to impress against a starting tackle.
  • Speaking of Benwikere -- now known as "Big Play Bene' (pronounce Ben-Ay)" -- he had two interceptions and at least three passes broken up. "He's one of those young guys that catches your eye. It was a good day for him." The rookie out of San Jose State was drafted to compete with Charles Godfrey for the nickel back vacated by Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota. He's not ready to be an every-down corner despite his flashes, but he's certainly out-performed Godfrey thus far as a nickel and every-down backup.
  • The Panthers are lining tight end Ed Dickson outside like a wide receiver a lot in a two tight-end formation. At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, he's yet another big target for Newton. With Dickson, starting tight end Greg Olsen, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery on the field the average height of the receivers is just under 6-4. With a quarterback who has a tendency to throw high at times that could come in handy. Regardless, judging by the number of formations Dickson is a part of, he will be a large part of this offense.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. Saturday. There's a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms, but Rivera seemed optimistic it would be dry.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 5

July, 29, 2014
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • For the second straight day coach Ron Rivera extended practice, only this time was because he liked what he was seeing. He called it the best practice of camp, and he's liked most of the others. The biggest difference today was the energy. It began on a high note when left tackle candidate Byron Bell opened with what he calls his "hopping" dance -- something he learned in his college fraternity at New Mexico -- that fired everyone up. It included one moment in which quarterback Cam Newton hit the ground after bumping into a teammate and then having most of the offense rush to pick him up. OK, so Rivera believes Newton pulled off a "flop." But it showed the camaraderie and chemistry this team is starting to build. And the energy was there, even if it could be attributed to cooler weather (low 80s) and that Wednesday is a day off.
  • Speaking of Bell, this was the first day he's stood out over Nate Chandler at left tackle enough to say he's the leading candidate to replace the retired Jordan Gross. Still too close to call, but I'm starting to lean towards Bell.
  • The Panthers are counting on second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, to strengthen the league's best pass rush. They are counting on him to add more flexibility to the line with his ability to play end and tackle. So far he's been relatively quiet, not doing anything to make himself stand out. On the plus side, he's not done anything to draw heavy criticism.
  • The Panthers may have made a tactical error in waiving sixth-round pick Tyler Gaffney, out for the year with a knee injury. They figured he would clear waivers, allowing them to put the former Stanford running back on injured reserve without carrying his salary on the current 90-man or late 53-man roster before going to IR. They got outsmarted when New England claimed Gaffney on Monday afternoon. Rivera was surprised by New England's move -- and disappointed. The Panthers really liked Gaffney and no team wants to give away draft picks like that. Gaffney could have been a potential replacement for DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart when their contracts expired in a couple of years.
  • Undrafted rookie wide receiver Marcus Lucas (Missouri) had one of those days when he seemed to catch everything in his direction. With the next two to three receiver spots open after Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, it's not unthinkable that Lucas could slip into the mix. Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King have had moments, but have not been consistent. Tiquan Underwood has the coolest hair in camp, but he hasn't consistently stood out. With Brenton Bersin playing well and Lucas shining in spots, you could see a few surprises on the final roster. Either that or the Panthers will watch the waiver wire for receivers cut by other teams.
The Carolina Panthers on Thursday signed second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri.

Ealy received a four-year deal worth about $3.5 million as the 60th player selected.

The Panthers felt they got a steal with Ealy, who was projected by some teams as a first-round pick. In 25 starts for Missouri, he had 27.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and 19 quarterback pressures.

General manager Dave Gettleman recently said he expected Ealy to move right into the rotation behind starters Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.

Ealy's ability to play inside at tackle and end -- just as 2013 Pro Bowl selection Hardy can -- gives the team flexibility to have all three pass-rush specialists on the field at the same time.

"John Fox taught me this when I was with the Giants,'' Gettleman said of the former Carolina coach that he knew as the defensive coordinator with the New York Giants. "One of the biggest mismatches in the game is those very real sudden, quick guys inside against the 'hog mollies.' They struggle to get their gloves on them.

"Kony goes in there and he's very comfortable. He played inside against big guys in the SEC and it was never too big for him. Someone made the argument he was just as productive in the three technique as he was inside. That's a huge value.''

Asked where he is most comfortable, Ealy said, "I'm comfortable anywhere they put me on the defensive line.''

Still unsigned for Carolina are first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, a wide receiver out of Florida State selected with the No. 28 pick, and third-round pick Trai Turner, a guard out of LSU.