Carolina Panthers

Joe Person: 20 observations from Carolina Panthers’ OTAs

Within hours after wrapping up their minicamp Thursday, the Carolina Panthers’ players and coaches started scattering for family vacations before they reconvene in a month.

Most of them, anyway.

Quarterback Cam Newton will remain in Charlotte for much of the next four weeks to continue the rehab on his surgically repaired left ankle, the status of which will be the focus of the early part of training camp.

Newton made a surprise appearance at Thursday’s practice, throwing in three 7-on-7 segments in his most extensive action since his March 19 surgery.

He leads the list of 20 observations from Panthers’ organized team activities:

• Newton’s choppy start Thursday – he threw his first two passes high and missed on seven of his first 10 throws – illustrated how critical it is for him to be ready for the start of camp so he can develop timing with his new receivers. First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin plans to stay in Charlotte this summer to work with Newton, but it’s impossible to replicate the speed and intensity of team drills. The Panthers must find a balance between keeping Newton’s ankle healthy and getting him the reps he needs.

• After Benjamin reached over cornerback Melvin White to snare an underthrown pass from Derek Anderson in the end zone Thursday, pro scouting director Mark Koncz mimicked Benjamin’s grab in a gesture to general manager Dave Gettleman.

Interpretation: That’s why we drafted him. Benjamin’s size is impressive, and he immediately upgrades the Panthers’ red-zone passing attack.

• Newly acquired wideout Tiquan Underwood is a long strider who was able to get behind defensive backs throughout OTAs. Coming down with the deep balls proved to be more difficult.

• Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, the other free-agent acquisitions at receiver, have similar skill sets. They’re about the same size – Avant is 6-foot and 210 pounds, Cotchery 6-1 and 205 – and are good route-runners with sure hands. It’s tough to envision them on the field together in two-receiver sets.

• After all of the offseason talk about the Panthers wanting to give young wideouts Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt opportunities, Kealoha Pilares might have made the biggest impact among the holdovers at receiver. Pilares, who lost most of the past two seasons to injuries, showed good quickness on underneath routes and caught nearly everything thrown his way.

• Pilares, the only other remaining member of the 2011 draft class besides Newton, is almost a lock to make the team because of his return skills. Pilares is the top kickoff returner and is in the mix to return punts.

• Running back Jonathan Stewart, plagued by ankle and knee injuries the past two years, showed great burst every time he touched the ball. A healthy Stewart will make a deep running back rotation even deeper.

• DeAngelo Williams had a bounce on his runs, too. On one dash down the sideline last week, linebacker Thomas Davis reminded Williams that Davis had a bead on him had the Panthers been in full pads. Williams acknowledged he’d seen Davis tracking him.

• Third-team quarterback Joe Webb had several nice runs and impressed Gettleman with the way he handled the two-minute drill. But Webb did not demonstrate the consistency shown by Anderson, who is the clear No. 2 behind Newton.

• The Panthers kept only two quarterbacks on the active roster last year after Jimmy Clausen was injured, but Webb’s experience as a receiver last year with Minnesota makes him an intriguing candidate for one of the last roster spots. Ultimately, it will come down to whether coach Ron Rivera has a greater need for a player with greater special teams value.

• Gettleman and Rivera are going to have some tough decisions to make at tight end. New arrival Ed Dickson runs well and knows how to get open, and Brandon Williams looks more fluid in his routes in his second year. Those are just the receiving complements to Greg Olsen.

• With no live contact, the offensive linemen were unable to get the initial “punch” to stymie their defensive counterparts, who had the upper hand. If Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are still beating tackles Byron Bell and Nate Chandler around the edge in Spartanburg, Rivera can start to worry.

• Rookie Trai Turner has the edge at right guard over Chris Scott, who missed several days for conditioning. Turner, a third-round pick from Louisiana State, is one of four rookies in the two-deep, along with Benjamin, defensive end Kony Ealy and cornerback Bene’ Benwikere.

• The other two rookies didn’t have much of a chance to crack the depth chart. Safety Tre Boston sat out after hernia surgery, and running back Tyler Gaffney was a late arrival because Stanford is on the quarter system.

• On the day veteran cornerback Antoine Cason wore sparring mitts so he wouldn’t grab receivers on their routes, he purposely caught several punts one-handed. He didn’t drop any that I saw. Steve Smith used to find ways to make drills more challenging, too.

• Speaking of Smith, it didn’t take him long for his tenacity to lead to a scuffle at the Ravens’ minicamp. That equaled the number of fights during four weeks of Panthers’ OTAs, at least in the sessions open to the media. Benjamin and cornerback James Dockery got into a shoving match during the first week.

• Offensive tackle David Foucault, the French-Canadian who was signed after trying out during the rookie minicamp, has an interesting background and a huge frame. But the weather wasn’t the only thing Foucault struggled to adjust to – a 6-8, 305-pounder, he repeatedly was beaten by speed rushers.

• Safety-turned-cornerback Charles Godfrey was listed as limited at the start of OTAs, but he did very little in his return from Achilles surgery. Benwikere took most of the reps at nickel corner in Godfrey’s absence and showed good ball-hawking skills.

• How important is communication to Rivera among his defensive players? Safety Colin Jones was mic’d up during one practice so coaches could go back and listen to his calls. Linebackers and safeties periodically wear the mics during practices. Among the findings: Second-year safety Robert Lester needs to be more vocal.

• More technology: Linebacker Chase Blackburn was among the players who wore GPS tracking devices – in a pocket on the back of their undershirts – to measure workload, distance covered and other data. The NFL had players start wearing the devices during occasional practices and games last year as a health and safety measure.

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