NFL Nation: Bene' Benwikere

Panthers Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
5:10
PM ET
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.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 7

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
6:00
PM ET
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.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers begin a three-day minicamp on Tuesday, their final tune-up before reporting for training camp on July 24.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

  • Cam Newton -- The fourth-year quarterback and coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility last week that Newton will be cleared medically to fully participate. Don't count on it. There is no real reason for Newton to risk a setback with the left ankle that required surgery in March for just three days of practice. Experts say it typically takes four months for the ankle to be completely recovered, which would end the rehabilitation in mid-July. Newton may be feeling good enough to throw and dance -- as we've seen him at some off-the-field functions -- but as he reminded, he'll step on a rock walking to the stadium and be reminded there's still healing to be done. My guess is you'll see him out there throwing some with his new receivers, but not in full team drills. It's not worth it at this point.
  • [+] EnlargeNate Chandler and Byron Bell
    Bob Leverone/AP PhotoCarolina Panthers offensive tackle Nate Chandler (left) holds a blocking pad as teammate Byron Bell extends his arms during drills on June 11.
    Left tackle -- I easily could have said the entire offensive line here since there is a complete overhaul other than center, where Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil is set. But finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross is the most critical since that player is responsible for protecting Newton's blind side. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler split the role during organized team activities, and this will be a rehash of what they've learned. The real battle won't start until training camp when they put the pads on. Most believe Bell, moving from starting right tackle, has the inside track on the position. He was the first to work at left tackle during OTAs. But Chandler was working out at tackle before injuries last season forced him to move to right guard, where he started the final eight regular-season games. A former defensive tackle, he has solid footwork and the size (6-4, 310) to play the position. He just doesn't have experience. Working against defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks last season with 15, will tell a lot. If you can hold your own against Hardy, then you can hold your own against most in the NFL. It's the same trial by fire Gross got with former Panther Julius Peppers across from him.
  • Wide receiver pairings -- Free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin were paired a lot in OTAs when the Panthers went to three-receiver sets. The next grouping I noticed a lot included Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin. Trimming the wide receivers corps to six will be the toughest of any position. Outside the top combination, the rest are trying to earn a spot and prove worthy. You'll see a lot of King, Marvin McNutt, Toney Clemons, Kealoha Pilares and Philly Brown as the Panthers try to replace their top four receivers from last season. Cotchery and Avant provide experience, and Benjamin provides a big target (6-5, 240) that will be tough to keep off the field. Underwood is the most likely to round out the top four. But one of the reasons the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go was to give the young receivers a chance to prove themselves that they otherwise wouldn't have with Smith taking most of the repetitions. This is their chance.
  • Rookies -- Four rookies have a legitimate shot to make major contributions this season, with two possibly starting. As mentioned above, you can pencil Benjamin into the top three at wide receiver. He'll especially be a big target inside the red zone. Second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, won't get to show how his pass-rushing abilities translate into the NFL for real until he gets in pads. He won't start, but the Panthers hope he's a regular in the rotation at end, as well as tackle. Third-round pick Trai Turner spent much of OTAs as the starting right guard with veteran Chris Scott dealing with conditioning and -- as Rivera said last week -- health issues. If he can hold his own against Carolina's big tackles, he has a chance to be a steal. The fourth rookie to make a big impression thus far is fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere, a cornerback out of San Jose State. He already may be the front-runner for the nickel spot, but his real competition won't be there until training camp when Charles Godfrey is expected to return fully from an Achilles injury that ended his season in the second game last season. Godfrey is making the transition from safety back to corner, where he started most of his college year.
  • Secondary -- You could just say cornerback here. The safeties appear to be set with veteran free-agent acquisitions Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Finding a replacement for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota, and possibly upgrade on the other side where undrafted rookie Melvin White started most of last season, will be key. Free agent Antoine Cason has experience in this system from his days at San Diego, where the defensive coordinator was Rivera. But Cason couldn't make the starting lineup at Arizona last season, so he still has a lot to prove. Josh Norman has made some spectacular plays in practice, just as he did the past two seasons in practice and preseason games, but he's yet to translate that into games on a regular basis. Rookie Benwikere has impressed in OTAs at the nickel spot, so don't rule him out. But like the offensive line and other areas in question, this won't be completely ironed out until training camp when Godfrey (as mentioned above) gets into the mix. Regardless, the Panthers are ahead of last season at this point at least in terms of experience.
  • Bonus watch: The heat. With temperatures expected in the mid-90s and high humidity, Rivera moved practices from midday-early afternoon to 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET. It was a smart move to avoid heat-related injuries in June. It'll be plenty hot at camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers needed a dynamic wide receiver. They got one in first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. They needed a left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross. They didn't get one. They needed a cornerback. They got a potential starter at nickel back, but the need for a starting every-down player wasn't quite as big as many thought with the news that safety Charles Godfrey has moved to corner.

That my quick assessment of how the Panthers did in the NFL draft.

Overall, I'd give this class a C-plus based on need. The plus is the Godfrey factor that nobody outside the organization was aware of.

Based on value and potential impact, I'd give it a B-minus. I really like the addition of Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round. He adds another pass-rusher to a defense that led the league in sacks last season with 60 and gives general manager Dave Gettleman flexibility for the future in dealing with the big contracts of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.

I also like the selection of LSU guard Trai Turner in the third round. He may not fill the void at tackle, but he gives the team a huge (6-foot-2 1/2, 310 pounds) player with a nasty attitude that could start at right guard.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Panthers a C-minusInsider based on need and a C based on value. He wasn't quite as high on Benjamin and the failure to get a tackle played a role in his evaluation.

It really doesn't matter what either of us think. It's what Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera think that matters the most. Rivera believes the post-draft roster has the potential to be better than it was last season when Carolina went 12-4 and won the NFC South.

"I like the potential in a lot of different phases of our offense and defense, and I think we added some free agents who are going to help us on the field," Rivera said. "I told Dave a few days ago that I really liked the way we set up our board, and I liked what they had come up with. I loved the targets that we had.

"Especially in the first three rounds, we had a pod of guys that we felt comfortable drafting and then feeling very good about who the number one guy was in each round. We can be better than we were and we are going to work and strive to get better."

Some of that might be coach speak. It will be tough for this team to improve in terms of wins and losses even if the overall talent is improved.

But the defense has the potential to be at least as good as the unit that ranked second in the league last season.

For all that was made of the losses on offense, it ranked 24th in the league last season. There needed to be an overhaul. That the Panthers didn't take a tackle shouldn't impact the grade of this class.

As Gettleman noted, after the first four there was a drop-off and the Panthers felt the talent already on the roster was better than anybody they could have selected. Looking at it that way, not taking a tackle with the top four gone before Carolina picked at No. 28 was the smart move.

Here's a look at my thoughts on Carolina's entire draft class:
  • WR Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State, 1st round, No. 28: Will be a huge target (6-5, 240) for Newton in the red zone and will keep teams from stacking eight players in the box, which should help the new offensive line and the running game.
  • DE Kony Ealy, Missouri, 2nd, No. 60: This wasn't considered a big need because of Hardy and Johnson, but keeping Johnson fresh will only make the defensive front that already was among the best in the NFL better.
  • OG Trai Turner, LSU, 3rd, No. 92: Never a bad thing to have a quality player who can strengthen the interior line, particularly for a team that wants to run as much as Carolina does.
  • S Tre Boston, North Carolina, 4th, No. 128: Carolina needed a young player to develop behind Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper.
  • CB Bene' Benwikere, San Jose State, 5th, No. 148 (traded fifth and seventh with Minnesota to move up 20 spots): Can compete for the nickel back spot that was left open when Captain Munnerlyn went to Minnesota.
  • RB Tyler Gaffney, Stanford, 6th, No. 204: This seems like a reach for a team stacked with backs, but he's a good blocker for a college back and can play special teams. It's not a sexy class, but it has the potential to be slightly better than average.

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