NFL Nation: Jason Avant

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs didn’t sign veteran wide receiver Jason Avant at this point in the season so he could stand around on the sideline during Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. Particularly with it looking like Junior Hemingway will miss the game because of a concussion, the Chiefs intend to get some work out of Avant.

But offensive coordinator Doug Pederson sounded a note of caution this week with regard to just how much the Chiefs have a right to expect from Avant. Avant did play for Andy Reid for several seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, so his knowledge of what Reid wants is better than that of an average guy who just walked in off the street.

“The biggest thing for Jason is that he’s two years removed from this system," Pederson said. “We can’t overload him mentally. We’ve got to be able to give him a handful of plays that he can go execute. We’re always talking about playing fast. That’s what we’re talking about. So we’ve got to be careful how many plays we give him.

“You can’t throw the whole thing at him, obviously, but give him those five, six, seven, 10 routes, whatever they are, by the end of the week."

Another issue is that until Avant signed with the Chiefs last week, he and quarterback Alex Smith were strangers. They had never played together, so they worked this week to resolve some of the inevitable timing problems that arise in these situations.

“Is there going to be a little bit of timing (problems)? Probably," Pederson said. “You can’t do it in four days. You probably can’t do it in eight days. It’s going to take a little time.

“(It takes) longer than seven days or three or four practices. That’s why (the Chiefs can only give Avant) a certain number of routes than we can focus on in practice and carry over to the game."

Otherwise, the Chiefs are eager to see if Avant can fortify what has been the least productive group of wide receivers in the NFL.

“He was a guy good at getting in and out of breaks," said Pederson, an assistant coach for the Eagles for part of Avant’s time there. “He’s good at the top of routes and creating separation for himself. He may not be the fastest guy like a Donnie Avery, where he’ll run past some people. But we didn’t ask him to do that in Philly.

“Jason is a smart guy. He’s a veteran in this league. He knows how to play. He’ll be fine."

Chiefs need to get Avant involved ASAP

November, 25, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's a new week, so we'll refresh your memory about what the Kansas City Chiefs are getting from their wide receivers this season.
  • Catches: 86, last in the NFL.
  • Yards, 997, last in the NFL.
  • Touchdowns 0, last in the NFL.
  • Longest gain, 33 yards, last in the NFL.
  • Targets, 141, last in the NFL.
  • Percentage of dropped passes, 6.4, last in the NFL.
These are all good reasons the Chiefs need to get newly signed wide receiver Jason Avant involved in Sunday night's game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium.

It's a mistake to consider Avant a savior. He won't be. His best season, from his younger days with the Philadelphia Eagles, had Avant catching 53 passes for 648 yards and zero touchdowns. That was in 2012, when he was 29. Avant has 13 career touchdowns in 127 games.

This season, in 11 games for the Carolina Panthers at age 31, Avant had 21 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown.

Still, the Chiefs are desperate for help at wide receiver. Dwayne Bowe, after a midseason surge, has slumped the past two games. Donnie Avery could conceivably play against Denver for the first time in two months, but in that case how much do the Chiefs have a right to expect from him?

Otherwise, the Chiefs are getting little in terms of catches and yardage from their wideouts. So get Avant in the lineup and let's see if he can make a difference.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington is standing on the sideline with a group of large men huddled close behind him.

"Lotulelei!" he shouts.

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei sprints onto the field at a pace he normally saves for chasing quarterbacks.

Three plays later, Washington bellows, "Addison! Short!"

Both run onto the field as though they’re coming out of the blocks in the 100 meters.

[+] EnlargeCharles Johnson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsGetting Charles Johnson and the other defensive linemen a breather now and then will be crucial for Carolina against Philadelphia's up-tempo attack.
This isn’t a live game situation. This is practice.

Substitution, normally a routine matter, is critical when facing the Philadelphia Eagles (6-2) as the Panthers (3-5-1) will on Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field.

Getting defensive linemen on and off the field becomes a focal part of practice. When Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez says the offense is like fast-break basketball, these guys understand.

"The key is having fresh bodies in the game," defensive end Wes Horton said. "Coach doesn’t want Charles [Johnson] in the game for too many snaps when he’s obviously tired.

"Having everyone prepared and in their stance ready to play ball, knowing what they have to do, is going to be key."

So the Panthers practice that, more than they have any week all season. They understand there are only limited times to get linemen in and out during a series, and they have to take advantage.

They also understand they can’t be caught with a player jogging off the field at the snap, resulting in a penalty for too many men on the field.

"It’s based off what coach Washington says," Horton said. "We don’t run onto the field until he says to go, but he’s preaching if it’s an incomplete pass or they’re substituting we’re already gearing in our heads to be ready to run out. Once he actually says it, we’re ready to fly out."

It’s not that the plays Philadelphia runs are unique as much as it is about the Eagles' tempo. The last thing the Panthers want is to have a defensive lineman on the field for six or seven plays in a row.

Carolina wide receiver Jason Avant, who played in Chip Kelly’s system at Philadelphia last season, has seen close up what the result of that is.

"It’s always the guys up front [that get tired]," he said. "They have so many plays offensively that a lot of times you think they’re a passing team. But a lot of their explosive plays happen in the running game.

"So when the D-line is tired, that’s when they can keep pounding."

The Eagles, ranked fourth in the NFL in total offense with 409.3 yards per game, are averaging 70.75 plays a game. That’s 10 more than the Panthers.

So it’s a challenge for defensive coordinators to find ways to slow the tempo and get fresh linemen on the field. Forcing incompletions and keeping first-down yardage to a minimum helps.

"If you allow them to get positive plays, it’s going to be a hard day," Avant said. "If you can keep them behind the chain, it’ll slow it down a little bit.

"We have to go out and be persistent when it comes to not being tired and remembering assignments. If you can stay assignment-pure and not give into fatigue you’ll be fine. Those teams that are weak, that forget things when they’re tired, it’s going to be challenging to you."

The Panthers normally rotate their linemen a lot. For example, Horton typically plays on first and second down, or obvious run situations. Mario Addison comes in for third down and obvious pass situations.

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards typically is used more in pass-rushing situations.

If the Panthers can’t get them on the field at the right time, the advantage goes to Philadelphia.

"Normally you would jog out," Lotulelei said. "No stress. But with the pace they run, we can’t get caught with an extra guy on the field. Those kind of penalties will kill you.

"If you’re in there for six, seven plays in a row you’re going to be winded. You’ve got to be strong, think fast and be fast."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton statistically is off to the best start of his NFL career.

 Despite a new set of wide receivers and a revamped offensive line, despite dealing with offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs in training camp, the fourth-year quarterback has a quarterback rating of 65.2 through his first five games.

That’s significantly better than his rating of 47.0 as a rookie in 2011 and 44.9 the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Newton is coming off a season-high 82.9 quarterback rating in a 37-37 tie against Cincinnati.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton is playing better than ever.

“In a roundabout way, as some people like to say around here, it’s like a forward fumble that he went through the whole surgery with the ankle when he did,’’ Rivera said of the left ankle that was repaired in March. “If you look at his technique, the base fundamentals he uses, how he goes through things now, he’s very proficient.

“This may have been that next big step that we’re all looking for him to take.’’

Newton has thrown seven touchdowns to only two interceptions for a career-best 3.5 ratio since missing the opener with fractured ribs. He began with a ratio of 1.8 in 2013, 1.2 in 2011 and 0.8 in 2012.

That the Panthers (3-2-1) unleashed Newton as a runner against Cincinnati should make him better. He rushed 17 times for 107 yards against the Bengals, but also completed 29 of 46 pass attempts for a season-high 284 yards and two touchdowns.

Newton has done all of this without all-time leading receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March.

The emergence of rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who may miss Sunday’s game at Green Bay with a concussion, has been one factor. Benjamin has 31 catches for 416 yards and four touchdowns.

Tight end Greg Olsen also has emerged as a Pro Bowl candidate. His 33 catches for 388 yards and five touchdowns has him on pace for career highs.

But Newton has been the key. He has a 92.3 passer rating, completing 61.7 percent of his passes. Since Week 6 of 2013, Newton has a 92.5 passer rating.

Newton is spreading the ball around better than ever. He threw to 10 different receivers against Cincinnati and to nine different receivers the week before against Chicago.

Last season, Newton never threw to more than seven different receivers in a game and averaged 6.1 a game.

As tight end, Olsen has said repeatedly the last few weeks, Newton is “throwing the ball as good, if not better, than he’s ever thrown the ball.’’

“And that’s saying a lot,’’ he added.

Wide receiver Jason Avant hasn’t been here the past three seasons to compare, but he’s been impressed.

“The crazy thing about this game, when you have an injury, it can cause you to do two things,’’ he said. “One, which Cam has done, to use it as a point to strengthen other areas, such as the passing game.

“Or you can just tank it. And he’s not a tank it-type person.’’

Newton could be called on to run more against a Green Bay defense ranked last in the NFL against the run.

“The things we do see on film, we have to take full advantage of it,’’ Newton said. “This is a very athletic bunch. We know that. Anything that possesses an edge on our end, we’re going to try to target that as best as possible.’’

That Newton didn’t feel unusually sore after the 17 carries was a good sign.

“When I looked up after the game I didn’t realize I had 17 rushes,’’ he said. “But if that’s what it takes to win, I’m willing to do it all over again.’’

At the level he’s playing, there’s no reason to doubt him.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelvin Benjamin was sitting at his locker, being his typical happy-go-lucky self, when he heard the mention of Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith.

"I'm a big fan of Steve's, man," the rookie said of the player he replaced as the top wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. "I love what he accomplished here. It would have been great for a young wide receiver to come in here and learn under him."

One of the many speculated reasons the 35-year-old Smith was released in March was because his fiery, me-against-the-world attitude wouldn't have been the best environment to nurture and develop a future superstar like Benjamin.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin has 16 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns through three games.
One of the reasons the Panthers signed veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant was because management felt they would provide a stable environment for a dynamic young receiver like the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin to grow.

It all made sense at the time.

But after observing Benjamin since Carolina made him the 28th pick of the draft, listening to what the former Florida State star had to say on Thursday about Smith, putting them together might not have been such a bad idea after all.

"He's physical, man," Benjamin said admiringly of Smith. "Physical. He brings the game."

I still believe the Panthers are better overall at wide receiver as a group. But imagine the lineup with Smith opposite Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen in the middle.

Nothing against Cotchery and Avant, but teams don't consider double-teaming them. Smith, even at 35, still demands an occasional double team, even if he's not a true No. 1 anymore.

His 18 catches for 290 yards and a touchdown leads the Ravens. Cotchery and Avant have 16 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown between them.

Benjamin definitely demands a double team, for his size as much as his ability to make spectacular catches. His 16 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns rank second on the team.

With Benjamin and Smith on the field you would have to pick your poison.

That would leave even more opportunities for Olsen, who already leads Carolina with 19 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

Yes, this is hindsight. But in hindsight it could have worked, not because Smith would have changed his stripes, but because Benjamin's demeanor would have allowed him to handle whatever Carolina's all-time leading receiver threw at him.

Benjamin truly is happy-go-lucky. Despite a burning intensity to excel, he's as relaxed on the field as he is off it. He doesn't get distracted by the pressure to be Carolina's No. 1 receiver or lose confidence when he drops a pass.

He makes one-handed snags like the ones he made several times during Thursday's practice seem routine.

"Having fun, man," Benjamin said.

If anything, Smith might have learned something from Benjamin in that you don't have to rev the intensity meter all the way up 24-7.

There's no doubt, at least in Benjamin's mind, he could have learned from the 5-9 Smith.

"We're two different types of wide receivers size-wise," Benjamin said. "But he can still teach you things like running routes and how to get off balls. I use all types of people's moves."

The admiration goes both ways. Smith isn't surprised Benjamin has excelled. He playfully described him as a "6-foot-5 Cam Newton with dreads."

"He's very athletic and catches the ball well," Smith said of Benjamin. "It doesn't surprise me what he's done thus far in his ability to catch the ball, because he did that in college."

Benjamin also is diplomatic based on his answer when asked if he and the Carolina offense might have benefited with Smith playing opposite him.

"I mean, I'm not going to say because I don't want to spark nothing," Benjamin said with a big smile. "Who knows?"

Muffed punt shouldn't spoil Brown's day

September, 22, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On a Sunday night when the defense looked dreadful, when the offense was down to a running back signed off of the practice squad a day earlier because of injuries, there was one bright spot for the Carolina Panthers.

Philly Brown.

And even he had a moment he would like to forget in the 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

[+] EnlargePhilly Brown
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCarolinia's Philly Brown runs for extra yardage after one of his seven catches Sunday.
Let's get that out of the way first. Brown, who had a habit of dropping punts in training camp, dropped one with 11 minutes remaining that Pittsburgh recovered for a touchdown to make it 30-13.

But the undrafted rookie out of Ohio State did enough good things at wide receiver that the dropped punt should not spoil what one day might be looked at as his NFL coming out party.

With starting wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (hamstring) inactive and No. 3 receiver Jason Avant also slowed by a hamstring injury, Brown got his first start. He didn't disappoint, catching seven passes on nine targets for 66 yards.

He showed the potential to be the speed receiver that the Panthers (2-1) lost in Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona during the offseason.

"My thing to him was he had too much of a good game to dwell on something that bad," quarterback Cam Newton said. "That's just the moral of the game. One play it was this player [making a mistake], the next play it was that player.

"People just took turns making mistakes."

Maybe that was to be expected, at least offensively. The Panthers spent much of the week working without Cotchery and Avant, as well as starting running back DeAngelo Williams (hamstring) and reserve Fozzy Whittaker (quad).

The depth at running back also took a hit in the game as Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert went down with leg injuries, leaving undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves as the only healthy back.

Brown stepped up when he was needed.

"Philly is a great player, and you saw that today," Newton said."I have no doubt in my mind he will bounce back and be a big impact for us."

Newton showed confidence in Brown from the get-go. He connected with him for an 11-yard gain on Carolina's second play. He came right back to him for nine yards on a pass Brown had to reach back and catch.

"I tried to catch everything my way and show the coaches and the team I can play," said Brown, who got the nickname Philly at Ohio State because there was another Brown with his given first name, Corey.

The Panthers know he can play. That is why they kept him on the 53-man roster above veterans such as Tavarres King and Tiquan Underwood when making cuts.

As for returning punts, there might be growing pains. But unless the Panthers sign somebody else, they don't have many options. Whittaker, next in line to return kicks, missed his second straight game.

Nobody else has Brown's elite speed.

"We will continue to evaluate it, but right now [Brown] is the most dynamic of all of them that we have," coach Ron Rivera said. "He has had success in college and we expect him to have success here."

Based on what Brown did as a receiver, there is plenty of upside.

"Basically, I was trying to do too much at the time," Brown said of the muffed punt. "I could have just done the smart play and fell on it, but instead I picked it up. It's something that I'm going to learn from and move on and get better and start focusing on next week."

But he shouldn't let it spoil his day.

Despite the drops, Benjamin improved

September, 16, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The numbers don't always tell the complete story, and there's no better example on the Carolina Panthers than rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in his first two NFL games.

From a fantasy football standpoint, Benjamin had a solid opener with six catches for 92 yards and an amazing 26-yard touchdown in a 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

He graded out a 70.

From a team standpoint, Benjamin was better in Week 2 despite having only two catches on eight targets for 46 yards, two dropped passes and a holding penalty in a 24-7 victory over Detroit.

He graded out a 93.

As Benjamin noted, "At the end of the day, it's all about the team.''

Despite the praise Benjamin got for his production in Week 1, his overall play was lacking when it came to the so-called little things. He didn't block well, and he wasn't always engaged in the play when it wasn't a pass to him.

"That was my main focus coming into this game,'' Benjamin said on Monday. "I knew they were going to have a lot of double coverage on me, so my main focus was just playing fast with plays to open it up for [other] guys and just blocking downfield for my running backs. I just tried to play real physical on the running.''

Carolina's other wide receivers responded. Jason Avant had five catches for 54 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown, after having one catch for no yards in the opener. Jerricho Cotchery had four catches for 46 yards, including a 2-point conversion catch.

Benjamin responded with better blocks. One of his best came in the second quarter when he held up the defender for quarterback Cam Newton to run 13 yards to the Detroit 12 on the read option.

"I was pleased with it,'' Benjamin said as he began preparing for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh. "I didn't get a holding call, so that's always great.''

Benjamin was referring to his holding call in the second quarter that negated an 11-yard run on the end-around by wide receiver Philly Brown.

Newton and Benjamin almost connected for a touchdown a few plays after the above block, but the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver was pushed out of bounds while making the catch in the left corner of the end zone.

As for the drops, Benjamin didn't have a good explanation other than he didn't bring the ball into his body. One in particular could have gone for big yardage as Newton hit him in the hands over the middle.

But Newton came right to Benjamin, who made a spectacular one-handed, 24-yard grab with a defender tight on him down the left side line.

"It just shows the relationship between us, the trust issue,'' Benjamin said. "I hold myself to a higher standard. I've just got to move on from [the two drops]. I can't let that hold me back.''

Panthers vs. Buccaneers preview

September, 5, 2014
Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.

W2W4: Carolina Panthers

August, 22, 2014
The Carolina Panthers (1-1) face the New England Patriots (1-1) at 7:30 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.

Here are three things to watch for:

1. Timing: It was obvious that quarterback Cam Newton needs more time working with his new receivers after he made his preseason debut in Sunday night's 28-16 victory over Kansas City. He started 1-for-5, missing rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin wide open down the left sideline at one point. The Panthers have increased Newton's reps in practice, but as coach Ron Rivera acknowledged, you can't simulate game speed. Newton will play the first half. It will be his last significant tune-up for the regular season with starters expected to play sparingly -- if at all -- in the final preseason game. He has shown chemistry with Benjamin and his other receivers in practice, but now needs to do that in a game. The Patriots should be a good test. They had two forced fumbles and two interceptions that they turned into 21 points in last week's 42-35 exhibition win over Philadelphia.

2. Time to step up: The Panthers signed free agent wide receiver Tiquan Underwood to a two-year deal after losing their top four receivers from 2013. You don't do that unless you expect him to make the roster. As of now he's on the outside looking in. The top three are Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. If the season started today, because of his return duties, undrafted rookie Philly Brown would be the fourth. Brenton Bersin would be the fifth in the team activated five. Odds are Carolina won't keep more than six receivers on their 53-man roster. Rivera continues to harp that he wants to see one or two outside the top three step up. Underwood is one of those because of his elite speed, something the top three don't have and another reason Brown's stock has risen. That the opponent is New England is a bit ironic because the Patriots released him the night before their Super Bowl loss to the Giants during the 2011 season. Rivera is going to give the young receivers more opportunities. If Underwood doesn't step up, he could be in danger of being cut for the ninth time in his career.

3. Time to start fast: The Carolina defense has started slowly in each of the first two preseason games, giving up big chunks of yardage early. The Panthers were outgained 114-1 at one point during the first quarter, but to their credit gave up only a pair of field goals. Many of those yards were surrendered due to mistakes or communication breakdowns in the secondary. Some of that has to do with a new group of defensive backs learning each other. Melvin White and Antoine Cason appear to have nailed down the starting corner jobs, and Charles Godfrey appears set as the nickelback in his transition from safety. But starting strong safety Roman Harper (turf toe) has yet to play in a preseason game and won't again tonight, leaving unheralded Anderson Russell and Robert Lester fighting for the backup job. Free safety Thomas DeCoud is in his first season with Carolina, so he's still adjusting to the system. Facing Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady should give this group a good idea of where they are.

Training camp was in the books late Tuesday morning, but fans lining the fence at the exit to the Wofford College practice fields couldn't get enough of Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

"Oh, man," Benjamin shouted apologetically as he headed for the locker room in his socks, having just given away his second shoe -- autographed, of course -- to a fan. "I'm sorry."

With apologies to coach Ron Rivera, who said defensive end Frank Alexander was the star of camp, it has been the 6-foot-5, 240-pound phenom from Florida State.

Benjamin opened camp with a spectacular leaping catch, stole the show in the preseason opener against Buffalo with an awkward-but-acrobatic diving 29-yard touchdown catch and ended camp with a leaping touchdown catch over the middle with two defenders draped on him.

Outside of who would start at left tackle, which appears settled with Byron Bell, who would replace the franchise's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, was the biggest question entering camp.

It's not a question leaving camp.

Benjamin made Smith, not here for the first time since 2001, an afterthought.

"I grew up watching Steve Smith, so I knew a lot about him," Benjamin said. "I knew he was the franchise’s leading receiver here. It’s unfortunate that he’s gone now, but I’m going to try to come in and make my mark."

He's off to a good start.

"I'm not unhappy," said general manager Dave Gettleman, who made the decision to release Smith in March. "Kelvin, he came prepared. He came in very good physical shape. You could see his energy is there every day. He's done everything we've asked him to do and he's getting better all the time."

Benjamin still has areas he needs to improve, however.

"We saw him do the things we needed him to do, but it's not just about going out and making great catches," Rivera said "It's about knowing the offense. ... And there's some things that if teams are doubling you, or teams are rolling to you, they're trying to take you out.

"And if you're not doing things within what we're trying to do, that can hurt us. So he's young. He's got a lot to learn."

But in Benjamin, along with veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, the Panthers have a solid top three receivers. Finding depth will be the next step. Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin appear next in line, and it would benefit the team from a speed standpoint if Tiquan Underwood could show the consistency needed to stick.

There are no questions with the consistency of quarterback Cam Newton, coming off ankle surgery in March. He had one of his better camps and showed no ill effects from the injury.

That he was turned loose this week to run the read-option increases the odds that Carolina keeps only two quarterbacks.

But without a doubt, solidifying Benjamin as his top receiver was key in this camp. It set the tone not only for this season but for many to come.

"There's a lot of things that play into it," Rivera said. "But hopefully, barring something crazy, those two guys play together 10 years here in Charlotte and for the Panthers and make a big mark."

Camp was a nice beginning.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 14

August, 11, 2014
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • Twenty years ago, for Carolina's inaugural trip to Wofford College for camp, there were 10 consecutive days when the temperature topped 100 degrees. It was an issue. This year it's the lack of heat that concerns coach Ron Rivera. He would have liked a few more hot, humid days to prepare Carolina for what it will face in the opener at Tampa Bay. Many days have been in the 70s. One practice was so cool that Rivera had to wear a jacket. So when the humidity rose toward the end of Monday's practice, you could see players wear down and the intensity decline. Rivera spent longer than normal talking to the team afterwards, reminding "you've got to fight it because that's probably what we're going to face when we go to Tampa Bay.''
  • Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel demonstrated why he will make the final roster during one-on-one drills with the linebackers. First he handled outside linebacker Thomas Davis and then he held his own against linebacker Chase Blackburn. Rivera said Brockel demonstrates the kind of toughness he wants to see from all his players. "It transfers to the rest of the team,'' he said. Brockel jokingly said he volunteered to play defense.
  • Rivera says he hasn't settled on a starting offensive line, but it appears set with Byron Bell at left tackle, Amini Silatolu at left guard, Ryan Kalil at center, Trai Turner at right guard and Nate Chandler at right tackle. The position of most concern entering camp was left tackle. Bell started the preseason opener and was there again for Monday's practice in full pads. He left at one point with a minor issue with patella tendinitis, but Rivera insisted that won't keep him out of a game. Garry Williams finished at left tackle and likely will give relief to both tackles when the season begins.
  • Undrafted rookie running back Darrin Reaves left practice with a knee injury and likely will be held out the next few days. He's impressed with his toughness and hard-nosed running, in some ways more than Kenjon Barner. Also out were defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring), defensive end Mario Addison (flu), defensive end Kony Ealy (foot) and offensive lineman Derek Dennis (flu).
  • Wide receivers Tiquan Underwood, Brenton Bersin and Tavarres King began one segment of team drills so the coaches could get an idea of what they can do with quarterback Cam Newton. The staff is looking for a few receivers to consistently step up after the top three of Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Underwood, signed as a free agent, looked good with a catch on the first play. Then he dropped the second pass that hit him in the numbers. If you were setting the 53-man roster today, he'd be around 54 or 55.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the final session of camp in Spartanburg before returning to Charlotte, N.C., for the rest of the preseason.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Mike Shula has a lot of new toys. He got some because the old toys were getting, well, old. He got some because opponents wanted to play with his old toys more than management was willing to pay to keep them.

The Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator still is learning everything these new toys can do, but he likes what he's seen so far -- particularly from a certain 6-foot-5, 240-pound gadget after his spectacular catch in Friday night's 20-18 preseason loss to Buffalo.

Shula believes he has flexibility to have more fun with this new toys than his old ones, and that has the potential to make his offense better than a year ago.

"Yeah!" Shula said. "Heck yeah!"

There's plenty of room to improve.

The Panthers ranked 26th in total offense in 2013, averaging 316 yards a game. They were 29th in passing (190.2 yards per game) and 18th in scoring (22.9 points per game).

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin's touchdown catch was a reason for excitement as the Carolina Panthers have big plans for their big target.
They were able to go 12-4 because the defense was ranked second in the league, the offense was among the best at ball control and quarterback Cam Newton made more game-winning clutch pays than he had during his first two seasons.

But it was obvious the offense needed an overhaul if the overall team was to improve. That's why Shula is excited about his new toys, particularly as it pertains to his new wide receivers -- rookie Kelvin Benjamin (the 6-5 toy), veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant -- and tight end Ed Dickson.

"It been great," Shula said. "They've come in with a workmanlike attitude, very serious, eager to prove themselves and earn a spot on the team. Competition is a beautiful thing. These guys get along good."

Shula isn't dishing on his old toys. But wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released in March, is 35 and at the end of his career. He didn't always get along. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon were adequate, but not irreplaceable.

Sometimes you have to tear things apart to move forward. That's what Carolina has done.

"We're starting over with guys that are knowledgeable, that are smart guys, that there's a reason why they've been in the league," Shula said. "They're new, but it's kind of been a positive thing."

Benjamin has received most of the headlines. The 28th pick of the draft has been phenomenal, catching everything thrown in his direction. His 29-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo while stumbling into the end zone showed just how special he is.

He's emerged as a No. 1 receiver that the 5-9 Smith admittedly wasn't anymore.

"He's such a big target, it has to give you more confidence as a quarterback, like a jump shooter with a basket that is twice as big," Shula said.

Dickson, a free agent pickup from Baltimore, also was a big addition. Putting him opposite Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver in 2013, in a two-tight end set has opened possibilities that Shula didn't have last season.

Defenses will have to commit eight players to the box, which will prevent double-teams on receivers and free up the entire offense.

"It gives you flexibility," Shula said. "It makes you less predictable by personnel groupings. So if all of a sudden you come in with two tight ends, you're not necessarily going to run the ball, you're not necessarily going to be in single-back, you're not necessarily going to have two tight ends on the edge.

"So now the defense can't just say, 'Oh, well, they're just going to play these formations, and out of these formations they're going to run just these plays.'"

But it's not just the new toys that excite Shula. Newton has looked as sharp as ever despite being limited since returning from offseason ankle surgery.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil gives the line a stabilizing force. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert still offer a solid one-two punch in the backfield. Olsen looks as dependable as ever.

"The core guys," Shula said with a smile.

At the core of Shula's excitement is Newton. The only thing sharper than his timing with receivers has been his leadership. Nobody has been more active in encouraging players who do well and motivating them when they need pushing.

"With all that there's a calmness and confidence," Shula said of the fourth-year quarterback. "He's always had that cool personality on the field. Now there's some added confidence with experience."

Old toys, new toys.

Shula has a lot more to play with now.

W2W4: Carolina Panthers

August, 8, 2014
The Carolina Panthers open their preseason against the Buffalo Bills on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium.

1. Quarterback watch: Starter Cam Newton officially hasn't been ruled out, but all signs indicate he won't play. Newton didn't take snaps during team drills on Thursday and was limited on Wednesday as the team continues to evaluate his left ankle that underwent surgery in March. It's not a setback if Newton doesn't play. But Newton hasn't been turned loose to scramble or ad-lib with his running during camp and the team doesn't want to put him in a position to reinjure the ankle against a defense that sacked him six times in Week 2 last season. That the Panthers are breaking in a restructured line adds to the chance the quarterback could be vulnerable. Backup Derek Anderson took all the snaps with the first team in the final tune-up, another hint Newton will sit.

2. Battle at left tackle: One of the biggest questions facing the Panthers during the offseason has been the battle to replace retired left tackle Jordan Gross. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler both have worked there, but Bell will get the start. It appears it's his job to lose. Coach Ron Rivera says he wants to have a decision by the end of the second preseason game, so this is Bell's big moment. That the test comes against Buffalo is ironic in that Bell gave up 3.5 sacks to Bills defensive end Mario Williams last season. He's playing with a chip.

3. Starting over: This will be the first test under fire for a team that lost its top four receivers from last season. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a true No. 1 against his own defense. Now the 6-foot-5, 240-pound phenom must prove it against an opponent. The second and third receiver spots are set with Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, but there are a handful of receivers fighting for the final two or three positions. Brenton Bersin and Tavarres King appear to have an edge for the next two spots, and Kealoha Pilares might have the edge for a spot as the leader to return kickoffs. Toney Clemmons, Philly Brown and Marcus Lucas have had moments in practice where they have impressed, but they need to do it in game situations.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- As the Carolina Panthers wrapped up Tuesday's practice, long-time NFL talent evaluator Gil Brandt said in almost disbelief, "Did you see that catch he made over there?"

Brant, who built the Dallas Cowboys into a power under Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry and currently an analyst, was referring to Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveronePanthers first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin has impressed this offseason.
The former Florida State wide receiver used his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame for two touchdown catches from Cam Newton on fade routes to the left side during red zone drills.

The one Brandt specifically referred to was a twisting catch in which Benjamin adjusted his body in mid-air to bring the ball down over cornerback James Dockery.

"You get a guy like this that goes up and catches the ball the way he does, there are not many [defensive backs] who are going to knock it down,'' Brandt said during a visit to Carolina's training camp at Wofford College.

"They've got a strong weapon.''

Brandt had Benjamin rated as a mid-first round selection, so he believes Carolina got a deal at No. 28.

Benjamin was the fifth wide receiver selected behind Clemson's Sammy Watkins (4th, Buffalo), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (7th, Tampa Bay), LSU's Odell Beckham (12th, New York Giants) and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks (20th, New Orleans).

Many of the draft experts said the gap between Watkins, who will face the Panthers on Friday night at Bank of America Stadium, and everybody else outside of Evans was big.

Brandt disagreed, saying Benjamin is as good as any of them and better than others -- albeit he wouldn't say who.

As for Carolina's overall group of receivers after losing its top four from last season -- including all-time leading receiver Steve Smith -- Brandt was impressed.

"They're better than people think they are,'' he said of Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant that make up the top three.

Brandt also isn't predicting a huge drop off from last season's 12-4 record as many are.

"I tell you this, the Panthers are in a good spot because everybody is saying they can't win 11 games, they can't do this and they can't do that," Brandt said. "As an organization and as a coaching staff, they do one heck of a job here."
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are in a two tight end set, which means the defense has to commit eight in the box, which puts cornerback Melvin White one-on-one with rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Quarterback Cam Newton drops back and lofts a high pass in the direction of the 6-foot-5 Benjamin running down the left sideline. Benjamin soars into the air and comes down with the football.

The crowd at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium cheers.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonFirst-rounder Kelvin Benjamin looks like a receiver who could make Panthers fans forget Steve Smith.
Carolina coaches smile.

To those -- including coach Ron Rivera prior to the draft -- that said the Panthers didn't necessarily need a true No. 1 receiver after releasing Steve Smith, you can stop that debate.

They have one in Benjamin, who returned to practice on Saturday for the first time since bruising his left knee on Sunday.

This is what the former Florida State standout brings to the offense, why he will make even the most diehard Smith fans forget about the seemingly harsh way Carolina's all-time leading receiver was let go.

"Yes, he does," wide receiver coach Rick Proehl said when I asked if Benjamin looked like a No. 1 receiver. "It's obvious."

It's also early, as Proehl quickly reminded. But he also admitted early returns are looking good.

"There are going to be some trials he's going to go through," Proehl said. "But if you keep making plays like he is right now they're going to come up and press him. How he adjusts and how he adapts will be his next step in being a No. 1 receiver.

"But every indication, right now ... he has a great feel for the game."

Benjamin still makes rookie mistakes, but he doesn't look like a rookie. And as Proehl noted, the misperception that Benjamin wasn't advanced in running good routes, "that's not true at all."

The perception that you can't coach Benjamin's size is true. Combine that with his route running and sneaky-fast speed and you have a weapon that defenses will have to respect from the get-go.

"No question," Proehl said. "The catches he's made have been amazing. You don't have to put it in a tight window. Just throw it up and put it in the general area and he's going to come down with it. That's what he brings to the table."

The Carolina defense certainly pays attention to Benjamin. When he lined up inside at the slot with Brenton Bersin and Tiquan Underwood on the outside during a red-zone play, defenders were screaming "13 in the slot" like it was a fire drill.

"They're going to have to [pay attention]," Proehl said. "He's got to make those plays, starting in preseason. But if he does and when he does, it's going to open it up for other guys."

Tight end Greg Olsen, as Proehl noted of last season's leading receiver, "should be ecstatic."

"Now they can't double him, and it's going to open things for him down the field as well as [Jerricho Cotchery] and [Jason] Avant and all the other guys," he added.

Among the other guys is tight end Ed Dickson, a free agent acquisition from Baltimore who sometimes lines up wide like a receiver. He's having a camp almost as impressive as Benjamin's.

"He's a stud, too," Proehl said. "You look at him and you're like, 'How did we get a guy like that? How was he on the street?' He's opened my eyes. He's a helluva player."

Dickson is a big reason the Panthers effectively can go to the two-tight-end set as they could in 2011 when Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards as a rookie with Jeremy Shockey opposite Olsen.

That season, the 5-9 Smith had 79 catches, his highest total in his past six seasons.

Benjamin should benefit in similar ways, maybe more because of his size. He looks unstoppable on the alley-oop pass like the one on which he beat White.

Can he be stopped on that play? I had to ask.

"Coach Ricky, he always told me just to go up and get the ball at its highest point," Benjamin said. "If I can do that, probably not."

Just what you would expect a No. 1 receiver to say.