After the Carolina Panthers wrapped up the third phase of organized team activities (OTAs) last week, secondary coach Steve Wilks – who ran practice in coach Ron Rivera’s absence – said the biggest accomplishment was getting through OTAs without a major injury.
Spoken like a head coach.
Wilks is right: There’s enough attrition at NFL training camps every year. The last thing a team needs is to get a couple of key players hurt during the NFL’s equivalent of spring practice.
The Panthers came out of OTAs unscathed, and managed to get their franchise quarterback locked up, as well. That’s a win-win.
As for other players and positions, it’s tough to do a detailed personnel evaluation – especially where linemen are concerned – based on 10 practices without full pads or live contact.
But several players stood out during the four sessions the Panthers opened to the media over the past three weeks – for reasons both good and bad.
The Observer looks at a few of the OTA standouts, as well players who will be looking to bounce back with stronger performances at this week’s mandatory, three-day minicamp.
Josh Norman: The fourth-year cornerback picked up where he left off in 2014, blanketing receivers, making plays on the ball and exuding what he calls “swag.”
Norman’s play took off last season when he stopped freelancing and played within the scheme. Adding veteran corner Charles Tillman in the offseason will only help Norman’s development.
“He’s on the verge, in my opinion, of being one of the top corners in the National Football League,” Wilks said. “He’s gotten to the point where he understands the details of the game. He’s been a student of the game. He’s letting the game come to him. He’s not trying to do things outside the defense, and it’s really showing in his play.”
Norman, who’s entering a contract year, soon could be paid like one of the game’s top corners, as well.
Frank Alexander: Alexander, suspended for the first 14 games last season, approached practices like he had something to prove. Coaches have seen this from Alexander before: Rivera called him the MVP at training camp last year in Spartanburg.
You might have heard the Panthers are looking for another pass rusher after opting not to address the position in the draft or free agency following Greg Hardy’s departure. Alexander, who pulled his groin late last week, could be the answer.
Corey Brown: The Receiver Formerly Known as Philly dropped his nickname, but still flashed the same speed while getting behind defensive backs. Brown gained the trust of Cam Newton with a couple of big catches last season after the Panthers cut Jason Avant.
Despite a deeper receiving corps this season following the additions of Ted Ginn Jr. and Devin Funchess, Brown’s speed will keep him in the rotation.
A FEW WHO STRUGGLED
Jarrett Boykin: ‘Struggle’ might be too strong, but the Charlotte product and free agent acquisition did little to separate himself from the crowd at receiver. Boykin had a huge drop-off last year in Green Bay, catching three passes for 23 yards after finishing with 49 receptions for 681 yards in 2013.
The Panthers didn’t sign Boykin (6-2, 215) to stretch the field. But they were hoping he could add depth at receiver while pitching in on special teams. He’s not off to a strong start.
Teddy Williams: In fairness, Williams was signed primarily as a special teams ace. But the former Jacksonville cornerback ended up getting a lot of reps at corner due to Bené Benwikere’s hamstring injury.
Williams has good speed. But he was beaten deep a few times early in OTAs, then was sidelined late last week with his own injury.
Considering Williams’ former teams have tried him at both receiver and corner, the Panthers didn’t think they were signing a shut-down corner. He’ll be expected to earn his $2.3 million on special teams.
A bunch of guys with sore hamstrings: Wideout Kelvin Benjamin and Benwikere were the biggest names among the hamstrung players. But the Panthers know what they have in the two second-year players who made big impacts as rookie.
That’s not the case with several young players who weren’t able to do much.
Cornerback Garry Peters, an undrafted rookie from Clemson, spent most of the past three weeks stretching with the training staff.
Jocquel Skinner, a corner with 4.3 speed in the 40, signed on June 2 and proceeded to pull his hamstring during his first practice.
Rivera said he was concerned about the rash of hamstring issues, but said “the bigger thing, the more important thing is we get them back on the field as quick as possible.”
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