NFL Nation: Kenjon Barner

Stewart looks fast in PUP list comeback

September, 30, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- More than a few people noticed when Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart ran at close to full speed down the sideline during Monday's practice.

Stewart
It was the first time the former first-round pick out of Oregon tested his ankles like that since undergoing offseason surgery.

"And that was exciting,'' coach Ron Rivera said.

Said Stewart, who has struggled in particular with rehabbing the right ankle, "As good as it's felt in a while.''

So could Stewart be ready to come off the physically unable to perform list in two weeks and be ready for the Oct. 20 home game against the St. Louis Rams? Neither Stewart nor Rivera wanted to get too far ahead of themselves, but Monday's workout was encouraging.

"I'm on the coaching side,'' Rivera said. "We get excited about things. [Head trainer] Ryan Vermillion and his people, they've got to be realistic about it.

"But it was really nice to see him go full ... I shouldn't say full speed, but really open up.''

A healthy Stewart would open up a Carolina offense that already ranks third in the NFL in rushing with DeAngelo Williams carrying the bulk of the load (291 yards).

A healthy Stewart could mean a return to the days when Williams and Stewart were nicknamed "Double Trouble.''

Rivera said there have been times already this season where Williams could have used a break on long drives. He also reminded that "everything is eyeing to the postseason,'' so the Panthers (1-2) don't necessarily have to rush Stewart back. A more realistic chance of seeing Stewart might be in Week 8 or 9.

On target to return this week against Arizona is another former Oregon running back, Kenjon Barner, who has been out since suffering an ankle injury in the preseason finale.

Barner definitely will be used to spell Williams and give Carolina a different look with his breakaway speed.

"He's a very diverse football player,'' Rivera said of this year's sixth-round pick. "He has the ability to run the football and catch it, and he's learned how to pass protect. A lot of [how he's used] has to do with play calling and the flow.''

Not good enough: Much of the attention before a 38-0 victory over the New York Giants was on how well Carolina practiced after an 0-2 start.

Monday's first workout after the bye weekend wasn't that good.

"Practice was good, but it wasn't good enough, and I let them know that at the end,'' Rivera said. "They did some really good things, but as we talked about, to win football games we've got to practice the whole way.''

That may be especially true coming into a game against a 2-2 Arizona team that had to rally to beat winless Tampa Bay on Sunday.

"We've just got to make sure everybody is on the same page, everybody is pushing, because we have a chance to build momentum coming off a win,'' Rivera said.

Injury updates: Starting left cornerback Josh Thomas (concussion) has been cleared to play this week after being held out against New York. Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (thigh) and safety Quintin Mikell (ankle), who also missed the Giants game, were not in pads on Monday and did not practice in full. They will be evaluated again on Wednesday.

Barner back; Stewart not far behind

September, 25, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It won't be long before the Carolina Panthers have an abundance of options for the NFL's No. 2 rushing attack.

Barner
Rookie running back Kenjon Barner returned to practice on Tuesday for the first time since spraining his foot in the third preseason game against Baltimore.

Former starter Jonathan Stewart, placed on the physically unable to perform list while rehabbing lingering issues from offseason ankle surgery, is on schedule to return in Week 7.

They eventually will join DeAngelo Williams, who ranks third in the NFL in rushing with 291 yards on 62 carries. Barner is set to go in the next game, Oct. 6 at Arizona.

"I'm ready,'' Barner said. "It felt good to be able to run around, get some touches and be back out there for the guys.''

Barner will provide much needed relief for Williams, who has averaged 20 rushes a game during a 1-2 start. Barner also will provide a change of pace for the offense with his speed and ability to get around the corner.

"I can contribute in any way they want me to,'' said Barner, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon who rushed for 45 yards on 16 carries before the injury. "I bring a different type of running style than DeAngelo brings, a kind of change of pace.

"I feel I can contribute in that area, just change the look of things.''

When Barner and Williams both return it could change the look of the entire offense.

Observation deck: Panthers-Eagles

August, 15, 2013
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The Carolina Panthers better put in a hurry-up defense quickly.

That became apparent in Thursday night’s 14-9 preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

With the defensive starters playing most of the first half, the Panthers struggled to stop Philadelphia’s fast-paced attack. The Eagles piled up 257 yards of total offense in the first half.

Carolina's defense was on its heels, reacting instead of being proactive, most of the night.

Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly’s scheme is unique, but the Panthers are going to face elements of it in the regular season. They have to play Atlanta (twice), a team that’s proficient in the no-huddle offense. They also have to face Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, a pair of quarterbacks who can make things happen with their ability to run.

Things could have been even worse, but Carolina’s first defense was able to produce three turnovers to stop Philadelphia drives. But it’s pretty obvious the unit isn’t a finished product.

The Panthers have some work to do in getting ready for no-huddle offenses and mobile quarterbacks.

Some other quick observations on the Panthers:
  • It wasn’t all bad news for the defense. Cornerback Josh Norman had an interception on a Hail-Mary pass just before the end of the first half and cornerback Josh Thomas picked off Nick Foles early on. Veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn have been getting most of the first-team work in camp, but the interceptions by Norman and Thomas might put them in the mix for starting jobs.
  • I liked the fact the Panthers gave running back DeAngelo Williams 12 carries in the first half. I thought Williams was underutilized last season. He’s an explosive player and, if given enough chances in the regular season, Williams will make things happen.
  • Defensive end Greg Hardy produced a first-half sack. But give some of the credit to rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who got good penetration on the play.
  • Wide receiver Steve Smith is 34, but still going strong, largely because he runs such great routes.
  • Rookie Kenjon Barner might have hurt his chances at claiming future playing time as a return man by muffing a third-quarter punt return.
  • With receivers Domenik Hixon, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards sitting out due to injuries, David Gettis and Ted Ginn Jr. made the most of increased opportunities. Gettis had five catches for 82 yards and Ginn had two catches for 39 yards.

Observation deck: Bears-Panthers

August, 9, 2013
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The muddled cornerback situation for the Carolina Panthers might be clearing up.

Second-year pro Josh Norman, who is competing with Drayton Florence, Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Thomas for a starting job recorded two interceptions in Friday night’s 24-17 victory against the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium.

Norman intercepted Jay Cutler on Chicago’s first offensive play of the night to set up a quick touchdown. Norman also had an interception that he returned 60 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Florence and Munnerlyn had been getting most of the first-team work in camp. But Norman certainly made his case for a starting job Friday night.

Some other observations on the Panthers:

We saw the two sides of quarterback Cam Newton in some very limited playing time. He threw a great touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell on a drag route. But Newton also forced a ball into coverage and had it intercepted and returned 51 yards for a touchdown.

Rookie fullback Michael Zordich suffered a knee injury on a first-quarter kickoff. Zordich is fighting for a roster spot and the injury looked serious.

Joe Adams, who had the punt return job taken away from him last year, might have gotten some redemption with a 23-yard punt return in the first quarter.

Charles Johnson got credit for a sack, but he got plenty of help from rookie Kawann Short, who got a good push. Short looked good on several other plays.

Rookie running back Kenjon Barner got a lot of playing time and did some good things. But Barner lost a fumble. That’s not going to help him gain the trust of the coaching staff. Adams lost his job last year because he couldn’t hold onto the football and the fumble could haunt Barner.

David Gettis had a couple of nice catches. But I think Gettis faces an uphill battle to make the roster. He’s behind Armanti Edwards and Ted Ginn Jr. on the depth chart and both of those receivers made several plays Thursday night. Edwards and Ginn also have return ability and Gettis does not.

Tight end Brandon Williams had a nice catch to set up a touchdown. He came to camp as a long shot to make the roster, but he might end up sticking around.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When the Carolina Panthers end a training camp practice, there’s a universal yell from the fans.

“Cam!" they shriek.

It’s an attempt to get quarterback Cam Newton to come sign autographs. It’s also a reminder that Newton’s popularity is greater than that of the 89 other players in camp combined.

“Imagine what it would be like if we win," a team employee said on a recent day while fans yelled Newton’s name.

Yeah, imagine the frenzy around Newton if the Panthers produced a winning season in his third year. That’s pretty much the objective, because coach Ron Rivera needs to win to keep his job, and this franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2008 season. And it’s mostly up to Newton, who is somewhat a polarizing figure, to make it happen.

The guy is an attention magnet. He’s beloved by Carolina fans but is often bashed by the national media. Presumably, the negativity stems from episodes in which he pouted when things were going badly, and critics have questioned his leadership skills.

But those who know Newton best say what you see isn’t what you get. They say Newton is ready to take the Panthers to the playoffs.

“The thing that I really admire about Cam is, even through all the adversity and even through all of the stuff the media has tried to create that’s not true about him, he’s done a really good job of weathering those storms," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. “His self-evaluation is phenomenal. He’s approached many guys and said, 'Look, I know I don’t do a great job with this or that,' and he’s the first one to tell you that he’s working on it and he’s going to do his best to make sure bad things don’t happen again. I’ve been around guys that are too prideful to ever say that or make an effort to do that.

“I’ve played around guys who will tell you, 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. I really don’t care what you think of me.' Cam’s not like that. That’s something that I really respect out of him, and that’s going to help not only with his teammates, but with himself."

Those who have spent the most time around Newton say the quarterback has grown immensely and is more than ready to be a leader.

“People have talked about him handling the ups and the downs," said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who worked as quarterbacks coach during Newton’s first two seasons. “We all hate to lose. You don’t ever want to get used to losing and justifying and saying, 'That’s OK, we can get them next week.' You want them to burn inside, but on the outside you have to manage that. It’s not golf. You’re not by yourself. You’ve got 10 other guys that feel just as bad as you do, so channel that feeling and get the most of not just yourself, but get the most out of those other guys. That’s what leadership is in my opinion."

If Newton can get the most out of himself and his teammates, the Panthers will be in the playoffs. And the Newton critics finally will be silenced.

"He's had the best first two seasons of any quarterback," general manager Dave Gettleman said. “The elephant in the room is the win-loss record. Now, it's time to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonRon Rivera and Carolina finished strong last season, and hope that momentum carries into this fall.
1. Ron Rivera needs to make the playoffs. Rivera needs to win, and he needs to do it quickly. The Panthers have gotten off to dismal starts in each of his first two seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson spent several days after last season debating whether he should keep Rivera.

Richardson ultimately decided that the team’s strong finish last season was a sign that Rivera had the Panthers pointed in the right direction. But Richardson is running out of patience.

Anything less than a playoff berth probably won’t be enough for Rivera to keep his job.

2. The offense needs to find an identity. Newton is talented in so many different ways that the Panthers haven’t figured out how to use him properly. That task is now up to Shula as he takes over the offense.

I think Shula has a chance to be one of this season’s success stories. In his previous stint as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, Shula was bashed for being too conservative. But he didn’t have very talented personnel. He also was under instructions from coach Tony Dungy to keep things conservative.

Shula is too smart to be conservative in Carolina. He has a rare talent in Newton and good skill-position players such as DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen. I can’t see Carolina’s offense being boring.

3. The secondary can make this defense great. On paper, Carolina’s front seven is as good as any in the league. But some very large questions remain in a secondary that wasn’t very good last season.

Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing. Because of salary-cap issues, the Panthers weren’t able to bring in any big names to patch up the secondary and settled for several midlevel free agents. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw out of the secondary during my visit to camp.

Mike Mitchell looks like he can fit nicely at strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence aren’t household names, but they’re smart veteran cornerbacks and they seem to have the edge on youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. Still, it remains to be seen how this secondary will match up in a division that includes wide receivers such as Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The way the team finished last season showed that the players have bought into Rivera. It also showed he’s grown as a coach. The Panthers made major changes to their offensive scheme after the dismal start and wound up winning five of their final six games.

If the Panthers can carry over that momentum, anything is possible. This is a team that’s been down for a while. But there are plenty of players with elite talent on this roster. This isn’t a team that is building from scratch. This is a team that simply is looking to turn a corner.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeJon Beason
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsTo reach their goals, the Panthers could use a healthy season from linebacker Jon Beason.
Linebacker Jon Beason and Stewart have been unable to practice so far as they attempt to come back from injuries. Both are extremely talented players. But their injury histories are troubling.

It remains to be seen if Beason and Stewart can get back to being anywhere close to the players they once were.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • A lot of people rip on Carolina’s receiving corps and say it has no depth beyond Smith. I have to disagree with that after watching the Panthers in camp. I think Brandon LaFell is a much better No. 2 receiver than he gets credit for. I also think reclamation project Ted Ginn Jr. might pay off because he has elite speed, and Domenik Hixon gives the Panthers a steady veteran backup.
  • That new-found depth at wide receiver doesn’t bode well for David Gettis. I know he’s a fan favorite because he had a nice rookie season in 2010. But injuries have limited Gettis to only two games over the past two seasons. I don’t know whether Gettis still is dealing with injuries, but I watched him in camp and he didn’t look much like he did as a rookie.
  • Sixth-round draft pick Kenjon Barner is going to have an impact on this team in some way. The backfield is crowded, and the Panthers have plenty of other options in the return game. But Barner has explosive quickness, and I think the Panthers will find a way to get him on the field.
  • Even though he hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since the 2010 season, I think defensive tackle Colin Cole has a shot at making the roster. Cole is massive and can be a nice backup run-stuffer to rookie Star Lotulelei.
  • Maybe it’s a smokescreen, but I don’t think I saw a read-option play the entire time I was at Carolina’s camp.
  • Despite their salary-cap limitations, I think the Panthers made an excellent move by signing free-agent linebacker Chase Blackburn. Beason and Thomas Davis have a history of injuries. Blackburn has starting experience and can play all three linebacker positions.
  • I’m not sure the Panthers are sold on their depth on the offensive line. They’re taking a look at some young backups now, but I think they could look to add a veteran or two.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some random observations and thoughts out of the Carolina Panthers’ minicamp:
  • Coach Ron Rivera was vague on this topic, but I get the sense that there’s a good chance running back Jonathan Stewart, who is recovering from surgery on both ankles, might not be ready to go at the start of training camp.
  • I don’t think the Panthers will scrap the read-option completely, but I came away with a strong sense they’ll be leaning much more heavily to a traditional running game. I think that’s a wonderful thing. Let Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert truly be running backs, and let Cam Newton be a true quarterback. Let him use his mobility when receivers aren’t open and plays are breaking down. But don’t ask your quarterback to be your leading rusher.
  • Speaking of running backs, rookie Kenjon Barner seems to have plenty of explosiveness and speed. The Panthers might have to figure out a way to get him into the backfield rotation.
  • After starters Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, the Panthers are going to have some very intriguing competition for the other receiver spots. Free-agent pickup Ted Ginn Jr. stood out during minicamp. Ginn has great speed, and I saw him catch several deep passes from Newton. I also thought Armanti Edwards, a former college quarterback, finally looked comfortable at receiver. But Ginn and Edwards will be competing with Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and David Gettis in training camp for playing time and roster spots.
  • Speaking of Ginn, the Panthers have plenty of options in the return game. But I get the sense that what they ideally would like to do is have Ginn handle both punt and kickoff returns.
  • Safety Robert Lester was signed as an undrafted free agent, but it’s obvious the Panthers are very high on what he has shown so far. There have been times when Lester has gotten some work with the first team.
  • I wish I could give you a clear picture of the situation at cornerback. But I can’t, and that’s mainly because the Panthers still don’t have a clear picture. Captain Munnerlyn hasn’t participated in minicamp as he recovers from an injury. The Panthers were giving a bunch of different cornerbacks work with the first team. I didn’t see any of them really stand out, and that means the competition will continue into training camp.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Last season, a lot of fans thought the Carolina Panthers weren’t using their running backs properly.

On Wednesday, one very influential person weighed in and stressed the importance of the running game.

“For us the running game is key,’’ quarterback Cam Newton said during a break between minicamp practices. “I think last year or the years past, and I don’t want to dwell on that during the interview, but the success for the Carolina Panthers has been getting our running backs involved in the game early and letting those guys do what they do.’’

Early last season, the Panthers used the read option extensively. After a 2-8 start, they went to a more traditional running game and finished with a 7-9 record. Coach Ron Rivera and others have indicated the Panthers want to utilize the running game in a manner similar to the way they did the second half of last season.

That’s something I believe the Panthers absolutely should do. They have a talented trio in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

“I feel like we have unbelievable tandem, especially with the additions that we have in [rookie] Kenjon [Barner] and other guys that’s capable of running the football as well as catching the ball out of the backfield,’’ Newton said. “That’s a field that we have to keep the defense honest with. Everyone knows we have playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, but for us to be successful, I feel and everyone feels on the offensive side of the ball that we have to run the football, that we will run the football.’’
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC South team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons upgraded this position quite a bit in free agency by replacing Michael Turner with Steven Jackson. This will be Jackson’s 10th NFL season, but he is still running very hard and shows an impressive burst for his age. He is as physical as ever and, for the first time in recent memory, will not be facing stacked boxes down after down. Jackson is also a far superior receiver to Turner, which is extremely important in this offense, which excels with so many great receivers. Jackson might not have a lot of big years left, but I expect 2013 to be one of his finest. Jacquizz Rodgers caught 53 passes last year, but Jackson should cut into Rodgers’ role on throwing downs. And Rodgers isn’t a true answer if Jackson were to go down. That lead role probably would go to Jason Snelling, who also is not a liability catching the football. Rodgers should see a fair amount of playing time, though, in Atlanta’s three-wide receiver sets, as he did a year ago.

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have more running backs than they know what to do with -- and have invested too many premium resources at this position. The lead guy here is Jonathan Stewart, who, if given the chance to be a featured back for an entire season and able to stay healthy, might just prove to be one of the top half-dozen backs in the league. Stewart has missed only nine games over his five seasons but is constantly fighting nagging injuries. He also averaged a meager 3.6 yards per carry last season after averaging 5.4 the year before. The Panthers recently restructured DeAngelo Williams’ contract, ensuring he'll remain in Carolina. This will be Williams’ eighth NFL season, but he hasn’t received more than 173 carries in any of the past three seasons. He has breakaway abilities and a penchant for breaking off long runs. I think he still has plenty left in the tank. Mike Tolbert is listed as a fullback, but he is a short-yardage specialist who is a bowling ball with a low center of gravity. For a back of his dimensions (5-foot-9, 245 pounds), he is also a surprisingly adept receiver. Oddly, when considering all of its other needs, Carolina used a sixth-round pick on Kenjon Barner, a perimeter and space player who comes from Chip Kelly’s high-octane Oregon offensive attack.

New Orleans Saints: Chris Ivory is now with the Jets, but the Saints still have a full stable of capable backs. In his first two NFL seasons, Mark Ingram has rushed for only 1,076 yards combined and has averaged under 4.0 yards per carry. But I expect Ingram to break out in 2013. Health issues have been a problem since he entered the league, but, as the 2012 season went along, he looked more and more comfortable. Despite its great prowess throwing the ball, Sean Payton’s offense stresses a physical, inside running game, which suits Ingram very well. Darren Sproles turns 30 before the season, but he is not at all short on quickness, speed or explosiveness. He is an elite receiving back who has caught 161 balls over his past 29 regular-season games. Pierre Thomas isn’t huge on production numbers, but he is extremely effective on a per-touch basis as a runner or receiver. He could fill in very ably in Ingram’s or Sproles’ role for a short period of time. The Saints use Thomas extremely well. Travaris Cadet could have a small role for New Orleans.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin was a phenom in his first season, accumulating nearly 2,000 combined yards even though the Buccaneers were missing their high-priced guards to help pave the way. Martin entered the league NFL-ready with an excellent all-around game. He is a very good, but not great, receiver. The same is true for his pass protection. He should only get better in both areas. But Martin is already a very good runner who can get to the corner with speed, break long runs and handle the physical pounding at the position. He is an excellent interior runner. Rookie sixth-round pick Mike James could be Martin’s direct backup, but Tampa Bay also used a seventh-round pick last year on Michael Smith. Brian Leonard is on the roster, as well. James isn’t flashy but has size and isn’t a dancer. Smith has more quickness to his game, but probably wouldn’t be suited for a large role if Martin were to miss time. Leonard plays hard and is a good blocker and receiver. He is also an accomplished special-teams player and knows how to help a team. Don’t be surprised if the Buccaneers consider adding a veteran running back before training camp opens.
The sixth round is over, except for the compensatory picks that don't involve any NFC South teams, but not without a little wheeling and dealing. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a pair of trades while the round was going on.

The one of note was that they finally traded running back LeGarrette Blount, who never was a favorite of coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs shipped Blount to New England for running back Jeff Demps, a former track star who the Bucs had tried to sign last year. The Bucs also got a seventh-round pick (No. 220) in the deal. Let's take a look at what the NFC South teams did in the sixth round.

At No. 182, the Carolina Panthers took Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. The Panthers are loaded at running back. This move was about special teams. Barner has ability as a return man, an area the Panthers want to upgrade.

At No. 183, the New Orleans Saints took Tarleton State defensive end Rufus Johnson. He’s a project from a small school, but has plenty of upside.

At No. 189, with a pick acquired from Minnesota, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Miami running back Mike James. He’ll get a chance to compete for Blount’s former role as Doug Martin's backup.

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