NFL Nation: Jerricho Cotchery

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
BALTIMORE -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 38-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium:

What it means: Carolina coach Ron Rivera said it took him three days to get over being "pissed off" about his team's performance after a 37-19 loss to Pittsburgh a week ago. It may take him longer to get over this one. It'll have little to do with former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith making Rivera's defense look bad with a pair of first-half touchdowns. It'll have everything to do with how undisciplined his entire team has become.

From losing gap control against the running game to having basically no pass rush to having 12 men on the field -- once on offense and once on special teams -- in critical situations to multiple pass interference penalties to the inability to protect quarterback Cam Newton, Carolina has become a shell of the team it was in the first two games. If the Panthers don't find a way to eliminate the mistakes, particularly on defense, they are headed for the crash many predicted before the season. Seventy-five points in two games after allowing only 21 in the first two games won't win you many games. The last time Carolina gave up 37-plus points in consecutive games was 1998. It finished 4-12.

Stock watch: Cornerback Melvin White was victimized on two Smith touchdowns in the first half, and then was replaced by Josh Norman. The first wasn't entirely White's fault. Smith caught a pass that was tipped by tight end Owen Daniels for a 61-yard score. But Smith was open because he'd beaten White with a double move. On Smith's second touchdown, a 21-yarder, White was beaten so badly that he couldn't stop Carolina's all-time leading receiver despite holding onto his arm. One of White's strengths has been keeping the receiver in front of him. Now he may be looking over his shoulder wondering if he's lost a starting job.

Game ball: Not a lot of options after that performance. I'll go with Jerricho Cotchery, the veteran free-agent wide receiver the Panthers signed to replace Smith. He had five catches for 80 yards, including a 30-yarder near the sideline with the defender tight on him.

What's next: The Panthers (2-2) return home to face the Chicago Bears. The Bears have won the last three against Carolina and are 2-0 against Rivera, a former player and coach for Chicago.
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?"
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.
PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger dismissed comparisons with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton earlier this week, though not because the Steelers quarterback has won two Super Bowls while Newton has yet to win a playoff game.

“He’s a lot better athlete than I am. He can throw it further than I can,” Roethlisberger said. “So I don’t know where the comparisons are. I guess they just say [that] because he’s big, and he’s bigger than me, too. So I guess I’ll take that as a compliment, that coaches compare me to him.”

The Steelers gave the hard sell this week when it comes to Newton, the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Mike McCarnCam Newton, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, presents a big challenge to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
And certainly containing the fourth-year veteran, who has been battling a rib injury, will be critical to the Steelers against the 2-0 Panthers on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called Newton the “quintessential modern quarterback” because he can beat teams with his arm and his legs.

Newton already has thrown for more than 11,500 yards, and the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry for his career.

When veteran Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor refers to Newton as “Cam Mutant,” it is actually the ultimate sign of respect.

“It’s rare when you find a quarterback that has a basketball build, a LeBron [James] build,” Taylor said. “He can make all the throws, and it’s going to take more than one guy to get him down.”

What has drawn the Newton and Roethlisberger comparisons is that each is hard to get on the ground, even when the pocket collapses around them.

And Newton, as athletic and fast as he is, isn’t just a threat to run when teams blitz him.

The former Auburn star has improved steadily against the blitz, as he showed last Sunday. In the Panthers’ 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions, Newton completed 9 of 11 passes when Detroit sent at least five pass-rushers after the quarterback, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“He’s a much better passer than maybe people give him credit for,” LeBeau said. “He can throw the pocket balls, but I would never call him a pocket passer. He can do it all, and he’s a big guy. We’ll have to play well to keep this offense in check. I think we can do it, but we’ll have to play well.”

Jerricho Cotchery is in his first season with the Panthers after playing for the Steelers from 2011-13.

The veteran wide receiver pleaded the fifth earlier this week when asked whether there are comparisons between Newton and Roethlisberger.

“You see the ball coming out of their hands, and they are both big guys,” Cotchery said, “But as far as comparing all of their other skills, I don’t want to get into that. I just want to be respectful when it comes to both of those guys.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jerricho Cotchery covered his mouth in a somewhat embarrassed attempt to cover his laughter at the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he is much calmer than former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.

"Steve was one of my favorite players and still is," Cotchery finally said of Smith, a member of the Baltimore Ravens after being released by Carolina in March. "Just the way he plays, it's relentless. I saw him the other night against Pittsburgh, slapping his head, spit coming everywhere."

[+] EnlargeJerricho Cotchery
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackReceiver Jerricho Cotchery has been an ideal fit for the Panthers.
Cotchery doesn't spit when he gets excited -- on or off the field. He is so quiet in the locker room and on the field that you hardly notice he's there. When he wants to make a point he doesn't shout it across the room as Smith sometimes did.

These are all things the Panthers (2-0) liked when they signed Cotchery to a two-year, $5 million deal during the offseason. These are things the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) miss about Cotchery as they prepare to face him on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"I miss everything, from on the field, his football play, his leadership, his awareness, his tenacity, his toughness, off the field having a leader, having a friend around," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said during a Wednesday conference call.

"He was just such a great teammate and a player, one of the best I’ve ever played with."

Cotchery didn't draw big headlines when Carolina made him the first piece of the puzzle to replace Smith and the team's top four wide receivers from last season. Then 31, he hadn't put up gaudy receiving numbers since he had 71 catches with the New York Jets in 2008.

But the Panthers weren't looking for gaudy. They were looking for a consistent role player that would help develop young receivers such as first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

Cotchery has been that, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin isn't surprised.

"Cotchery is an easy guy to like," he said. "He’s a great teammate. He’ll do anything to help the team win, and he’s extremely low-maintenance. I just can’t say enough good, positive things about Jerricho and what he did for us when he was here."

Cotchery won't ever make the spectacular catches like the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Benjamin has in his first two games. But he has been consistent, catching four passes in each game for a combined 76 yards.

He has been a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team with 14 catches for 155 yards.

And a complement was all the Panthers were looking for.

Cotchery was just looking for a team to wrap up his career. He insists the only team he would have left Pittsburgh for was Carolina, about three hours from where he played college football and met his wife at N.C. State in Raleigh.

There really wasn't much of a choice based on Carolina's offer compared to Pittsburgh's. But Cotchery doesn't feel extra incentive to beat the Steelers because they weren't willing to pay more.

"My incentive is winning the Super Bowl," he said. "They know that over there."

Cotchery has fit in at Carolina from Day 1. Running back De'Angelo Williams nicknamed him "Unc" right away because he "looked like somebody's uncle."

Benjamin accepted Cotchery's guidance immediately.

"He listens," Cotchery said. "It's humbling to have a talented guy like that who can catch the ball and do really good things on the field, and he really listens to your advice. I credit him for that."

Credit the Panthers for signing Cotchery.

Despite the drops, Benjamin improved

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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.''
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
Aug 22
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
Aug 11
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
Aug 8
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. -- 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.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp:
  • Cam Newton overthrows a pass off the outreached fingertips of wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Newton throws a pass high and wide to tight end Greg Olsen. Newton throws high again. Yes, the franchise quarterback struggled early on this rainy Thursday morning. It had nothing to do with his left ankle, on which he underwent surgery in March. Asked if the weather had anything to do with it, coach Ron Rivera emphatically and sternly said, "No.'' But the struggles were noticeable, enough that the Panthers ran a couple of segments again. "He was perfect," Rivera said of Newton the second time around. "Once he got into his rhythm, he practiced very well down the stretch." Newton was especially impressive on his final two-minute drills -- or 1:30, as the Panthers like to go with -- finishing a drive with a touchdown pass over the middle to Cotchery. Newton also was more active in talking to his wide receivers and tight ends about what they were doing as it related to him.
  • With first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin (bruised left knee) out another day, former Wofford standout Brenton Bersin opened as the first-string slot receiver when the Panthers opened in team drills. Normally, Jason Avant or Cotchery line up there with Benjamin on the field. Bersin's presence shows just how far he has come from an undrafted free agent cut early in 2012 to making the practice squad a year ago. Rivera said Bersin could help the team and he wants to see how he does against the first-team defense. Tavarres King also had a good day of practice. Three straight, according to Rivera, as the Panthers look to rebuild at receiver. Meanwhile, Benjamin's rehab is coming along nicely from his knee injury. There's still no timetable for his return, only that he will be re-evaluated before Friday's practice. He is not expected to miss next week's preseason opener against Buffalo.
  • With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, the Panthers are looking for more leadership out of center Ryan Kalil. Rivera has been impressed with the way the four-time Pro Bowl selection has been more vocal in camp. Kalil admits he doesn't like speaking to groups as much as Gross did, but there's no doubt his leadership up front will be key to how this rebuilt line performs.
  • The Panthers practiced kickoff returns for the first time in camp. Wide receiver Tiquan Underwood and fullback Mike Tolbert were the first pair deep. The speedy Underwood was signed as a free agent wide receiver, but he hasn't done anything particularly noteworthy there. His best way to secure a roster spot might be as a return specialist. Tolbert's primary role on kickoffs is supposed to be as a blocker, but a couple of times, the 2013 Pro Bowl selection lined up as the primary returner. Rivera quickly reminded the player known as "Fat Guy" -- among other things -- that he should return kicks only in "emergency" situations.
  • Outside linebacker Thomas Davis looked like he was searching for a contact early in practice as he and several trainers scoured the field. He actually lost a diamond earring. He stayed afterward looking for it, but no luck. Davis wasn't as much concerned with the earring as he was having to file an insurance claim on it. Maybe it will show up later, as his lost wedding ring once did.
  • The Panthers practice at 9:25 a.m. again on Friday. The forecast is for more rain.

Camp preview: Pittsburgh Steelers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation’s Scott Brown examines the three biggest issues facing the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into training camp:

Continued growth on offense: The Steelers averaged 26.6 points in winning six of their final eight games last season, and the foundation is in place for them to build on that. It all starts with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t miss a snap last season and is still in the prime of his career. Roethlisberger never looked more in control than when he was running the no-huddle offense, something the Steelers did frequently in the second half of the season. The offseason practices were critical for Roethlisberger and new wide receivers (Lance Moore) and younger ones (Markus Wheaton) to work together in the no-huddle offense. Roethlisberger said the Steelers will add to their no-huddle playbook during the offseason and training camp before picking the best plays. He must be in sync with the wide receivers; Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery must be replaced for the no-huddle attack to hum again. Repetitions during training camp and preseason practice are critical, especially because the players will be in pads and hitting one another. That means the Steelers’ wide receivers especially have to stay relatively healthy during the most important time for team building, developing a rapport with Roethlisberger and earning his trust.

Getting after the quarterback: The Steelers managed just 34 sacks last season, their lowest total since 1990, and they must get more production from their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds supplanted LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker the second half of last season and led the Steelers with eight sacks. Worilds, hampered by a nagging calf injury during offseason practices, has to show that he can be a pass-rushing force for more than half a season. The former second-round pick has no one blocking his path to the field with Woodley now in Oakland. Jarvis Jones has to justify the Steelers using the 17th overall pick of the 2013 draft on him. The former Georgia All-American managed just one sack as a rookie but has improved his strength both physically and in regard to his grasp of the playbook. Jones also has Joey Porter mentoring him, and the Steelers will give Jones every opportunity to succeed. Depth is a concern at outside linebacker, so in addition to providing a consistent pass rush, Worilds and Jones have to stay healthy. If general manager Kevin Colbert is looking to add depth, Steelers fans will be quick to remind him that James Harrison is only a phone call away. What would most help the defense, however, is if Jones can provide the same kind of pass rush that Harrison supplied from the right side of the Steelers’ defense when Harrison made the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons.

Improving their run game and rushing defense: The Steelers struggled running the ball and stopping it in 2013. Both still matter, even at a time when NFL teams are slinging the ball early and often and using the pass to set up the run. Le’Veon Bell should improve on his 3.5 yards per carry in his second season, and the Steelers have improved their overall talent at running back. LeGarrette Blount is a significant upgrade over Jonathan Dwyer and third-round pick Dri Archer is a burner who gives the Steelers a home-run threat in the backfield. The Steelers should significantly improve on the 86.4 rushing yards they averaged in 2013. Not as certain is whether the Steelers will be appreciably better in stopping the run after yielding 115.6 rushing yards per game last season. Nose tackle Steve McLendon has gotten bigger and appears ready to assert himself this season, but defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward is a question mark. First-round pick Ryan Shazier should be an upgrade at weakside inside linebacker, but he will inevitably endure some rookie struggles, even if he is ready to start this season. Everything with the Steelers’ defense starts with shutting down the run, so it has to do a much better job this season.



Thursday, 10/16
Sunday, 10/19
Monday, 10/20