NFC South: Carolina Panthers
"I think I'm the best cornerback," Johnson said on Monday during his pro day at Wake Forest.
If the Carolina Panthers use the 25th pick on a cornerback, Johnson could be their guy.
At 6-foot-1 and 185-pounds, Johnson could fill the role of shutdown corner opposite Josh Norman so that 2014 draft pick Bene' Benwikere could move back to nickelback.
While offensive tackle and a speed wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin are Carolina's top needs, a potential shutdown corner isn't far behind.
Michigan State's Trae Waynes is considered to be the consensus top cornerback prospect, and he reinforced that recently at the NFL combine by posting a time of 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Washington's Marcus Peters isn't far behind in pure talent, but he has baggage after being released from the team this past season.
Johnson didn't show elite speed at the combine, running a 4.52 40. But he felt good enough about that time that he didn't run the 40 on Monday.
He feels good enough about his overall talent that he believes he can be a shutdown corner in the NFL just as he was at Wake Forest. So does Wake coach Dave Clawson, reminding that's what Johnson did against top programs such as Florida State in 2014.
In explaining why Johnson had only one interception this past season after posting three in each of the two previous seasons, Clawson said opponents often threw away from Johnson.
"He's a tall corner that can run," Clawson said. "And he has the loosest, quickest hips of anybody I've ever seen."
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who hold the 22nd pick, obviously like Johnson. Of the 23 teams that sent representatives to North Carolina, they led the way with four.
The Panthers met informally with Johnson at the combine and haven't set up an official visit to Charlotte, about 90 minutes from Winston-Salem. They only sent scout Robert Haines for Monday's workout, but they saw him run only a week ago.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman insists he'll take the best player available. Much of what position the Panthers will consider depends on what happens in free agency, which begins next week.
Johnson has no doubt he'll make some team happy.
"To be out on an island [as cornerbacks are] you have to be confident," he said.
McShay has Carolina selecting Pittsburgh offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings in his latest mock draft. Kiper also had the Panthers taking the 6-foot-4, 313-pound senior in his most recent projection.
The Panthers obviously are looking for a tackle, specifically a left tackle now that it’s clear 2014 starter Byron Bell will not return. Clemmings might be a better fit on the right side, so even if the Panthers draft a tackle in the first round, look for them to sign one in free agency.
They recently had Michael Oher, released by the Tennessee Titans, in for a visit.
I still wouldn’t be surprised to see Carolina take a defensive tackle or a speed wide receiver at No. 25. Florida State defensive lineman Eddie Goldman might be available. Much depends on what happens in free agency.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Wesley Thornburg lost all of her hair two years ago when she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments after a relapse of acute lymphoid leukemia.
Thanks to a friend with a collection of wigs, she had options while her hair grew out.
Thanks to Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin and offensive lineman Brian Folkerts, other children will have the same options.
Bersin hadn’t had a haircut since August 2012, when one of his buddies in college shaved his head. Folkerts hadn’t had one since his junior year in college four years ago, when one of his friends gave him a buzz cut.
But both were more than willing to get one on Wednesday to benefit Wigs for Kids, an organization that provides free hair replacement systems for children who have lost their hair due to medical-related issues.
Thornburg said it best what their donations will mean to other kids by relating what a wig meant to her.
“When you’re a teenager, hair is a pretty big thing for a girl," she said.
Carrie Keuten, the events coordinator at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital where Thornburg and Karriker have been patients, said hair donations such as these are “extremely vital."
“First of all, I know both these kids and they’ve been through a lot ... a lot in their young years," she said. “I’ve seen them with hair, I’ve seen them without hair and now I’ve seen them with hair again. For their self- confidence, for their self-esteem, to see a radiant smile ... we all feel complete with our hair.
“They’re beautiful with or without it. But [hair] can define them in personal ways that none of us can actually experience unless we’ve actually been in their shoes.’"
Folkerts and Bersin had their hair styled after the initial cuts. Folkerts went for the 2015 look of New England wide receiver Julian Edelman. Bersin went for the “Sunshine" look, otherwise known as the character Ronnie Bass in the movie “Remember The Titans."
Both thought about getting their hair cut this past summer. Both are glad they waited for a more worthwhile event.
Folkerts said he might have gotten his hair cut even sooner but felt he had to keep it growing after former tackle Jordan Gross nicknamed him “Caveman."
The beard, however, he’s keeping.
“I’m going to have to grow the beard out to balance it out," he said with a laugh.
Bersin admitted he was “stressed" about getting the cut, particularly when people began laughing after the initial clips. But after seeing the final product he – as well as his girlfriend – approved.
“Maybe a little girl can have hair now," Bersin said. “And I can grow it out and get it cut [for this] again."
The Panthers are looking to replace left tackle Byron Bell, an unrestricted free agent who will not be re-signed. Oher, whose life was chronicled in the movie “The Blind Side," could be an option.
According to Wilson, Oher is healthy now. But Oher is coming off a rough season in which he ranked as the No. 75 tackle out of 84 players graded by Pro Football Focus. Bell was 83rd.
Even if the Panthers signed a player such as Oher, they still would be in the market for a tackle with the No. 25 pick of the draft.
It would be stunning if they did.
The Panthers still have a solid core of backs without the 31-year-old Williams, who Monday night on a local television station announced that team officials said he wouldn’t be back in 2015 despite having one year left on his contract.
It starts with Jonathan Stewart. A first-round pick out of Oregon in 2008, he assumed the role as the primary back late last season when Williams was out with a broken hand. He rushed for 809 yards in 2014, with 594 of that coming in the final six games.
Stewart sparked a late-season 5-1 run, but injuries still have to be a concern. He missed three games in 2014 and 17 over the previous two seasons.
The organization likes the change of pace journeyman Fozzy Whittaker, an exclusive rights free agent, brings. He’s not somebody you want to carry the load, but he’s adequate as a fill-in.
Mike Tolbert can play halfback as well as fullback, his primary role. He missed eight games last season with a leg injury but has been durable for his career. He’s best on short-yardage situations and as a receiver out of the backfield.
The Panthers still might use a draft pick on a back. They just won’t use it in the first round for Georgia’s Todd Gurley or Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon -- unless one of the top-rated backs falls into the second or even third round.
Carolina also isn’t expected to go after a top free agent back such as DeMarco Murray should Dallas not re-sign the league’s leading rusher. The Panthers already have $8.3 million tied up in Stewart and $3.4 million in Tolbert.
At best they might consider a back like C.J. Spiller (Bufflalo), Mark Ingram (New Orleans) or Ryan Mathews (San Diego) at a bargain. But even that is doubtful with much bigger free agent needs at left tackle, wide receiver and cornerback.
In all likelihood, you’ll see the Panthers fill out their backfield in the draft somewhere between the third and fifth rounds. They thought they had a sixth-round steal last year in Tyler Gaffney before the Stanford star suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and was claimed off waivers by New England.
Here are a few backs that may be available in the middle rounds:
- Ameer Abdullah, 5-9, 205, Nebraska: Could go as early as the second round. Led the Big Ten in rushing with more than 1,600 yards this past season. A tough, physical runner that fits Carolina’s power running game.
- Duke Johnson, 5-9, 207, Miami: The school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards. More of a speedster on the corner who has good hands catching out of the backfield.
- Jay Ajayi, RB, 6-0, 221, Boise State: Rushed for more than 1,800 yards as a junior this past season. Also a solid receiver with more than 500 yards receiving.
I could go on, but as general manager Dave Gettleman said at the combine last week the draft is deep at this position.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some things are starting to make sense.
First there was the image in late May of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy leaving an offseason workout flanked by running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart like they were Secret Service protecting the president.
It makes more sense after hearing Williams tell a local Charlotte television station Monday night that Hardy was the only teammate who attended his mother’s funeral in Arkansas on May 24.
"One player came," Williams said during the interview in which he told WBTV the Panthers planned to release him. “And there is nothing that he can say or do in my eyes that is bad. ... Greg Hardy. All the players around the league, all the players in the locker room, they texted and called. But Greg Hardy showed up."
This doesn’t explain why no other teammates showed up, but it does explain Williams' allegiance to Hardy.
Then there was Williams going the entire offseason and training camp -- and really most of the season -- without doing interviews, much like Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.
There were times when he did it in such a demeaning way that it was offensive. A member of the Panthers' public relations department asked during training camp that reporters give Williams time, explaining that the team’s all-time leading rusher was dealing with losing his mother to breast cancer.
It was hinted then that Williams wasn’t upset with the media as much as he was management for not doing enough after his mother died.
His comments on WBTV about owner Jerry Richardson not reaching out to him at the time his mother died and really not until a few months later added substance to that.
"I’m not saying this now because they’re releasing me," Williams told WBTV. "But it stung to know that a place of business that you work for and that you’ve bled and played through injuries, you did everything you possibly can for this organization to be successful, and then upon your darkest hour they let you handle it by yourself."
The Panthers haven’t responded to any of this. Regardless of what they did or didn’t do regarding the death of Williams’ mother, Williams felt they didn’t do enough.
This has nothing to do with why Williams will be released with a post-June 1 designation. The decision was based on his age -- 32 in April -- and moving forward with $2 million in savings under the salary cap.
It has to do with the Panthers realizing they can’t go into the season with $18 million committed to three backs -- Williams ($6.3 million), Stewart ($8.3 million), and Mike Tolbert ($3.4 million) -- in an era when the running back has been devalued.
It has to do with an injury-prone Stewart showing late last season, while Williams was out with a broken hand, that he can be the go-to back.
But this does explain why Williams isn’t brokenhearted about being released like all-time leading receiver Steve Smith was last season.
That it’s taken a while for all of this to surface comes back to something general manager Dave Gettleman said last year when talking about offseason decisions.
"The truth of the matter is everybody is on the outside looking in," he said. "The fact of the matter is there's stuff going on behind closed doors that we don’t know about. I don't care what team it is. I don't care what sport it is. You don't know all the facts. Unless you know all the facts, all you're doing is speculating."
Williams has ended some of the speculation surrounding him. You could argue it comes off as sour grapes because he waited until after being told he was done at Carolina to speak. You could argue it has turned into a public relations blunder for Carolina.
But at least now some things are starting to make sense.
Newton's contract didn't even come up in conversation when the Panthers met with Newton's representatives this past weekend at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, a league source told ESPN.com.
Newton has no incentive to move quickly, either. The market for top quarterbacks will increase when Seattle's Russell Wilson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck get new deals.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported last month the Colts are preparing to give Luck a "blockbuster mega deal" that would make him the highest paid quarterback in the league.
That figure reportedly could be $25 million a year, much higher than the $20 million to $22 million standard set by the current crop of elite quarterbacks.
The Colts don't have to be in a hurry either. The first pick of the 2012 draft is locked up this year and the team can exercise the fifth-year option on him as the Panthers did with Newton.
Newton hasn't proven to be in the elite category of Luck or Wilson despite making the Pro Bowl twice. He likely will receive a deal in the six-year range worth closer to $18 million to $20 million range.
Negotiations are expected to center as much around how much is guaranteed as the overall number.
Chances are talks between Newton and the Panthers won't heat up until this summer, after the Panthers have completed upgrading the roster through free agency and the draft.
Neither side appears to be pushing the issue. The Panthers haven't hesitated to say Newton is their quarterback of the future and they ultimately want to get a deal done.
Newton has said he wants to be at Carolina long-term, but doesn't want negotiations to take away from his preparation.
General manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera declined to discuss Newton's contract when they met with reporters at the combine.
But Rivera was excited that, after a recent meeting with Newton, to report the quarterback is healthier than he's been in "a long time."
Newton underwent ankle surgery last offseason that kept him out of offseason workouts, fractured ribs during training camp that kept him out of the opener, and then broke two small bones in his back during a December car crash that sidelined him for one start.
"I'm very happy for the young man because last year I thought he took a very big step in the second half of the season," Rivera said. "We did some things offensively, a little bit differently than we had done earlier in the year.
"We felt he was healthy and strong enough to do those things, and Mike [Shula] and the offensive staff implemented those plans and I thought they showed very well. I thought he handled the situation very nicely, and he's going to continue in his growth as we go forward."
Last season, the Panthers began using global positioning system technology for tracking a player’s heart rate, pace, speed, force of a collision and other data that might be attributed to better health.
The GPS tracker fits under a player’s pads in the back and is so small that it fits in the palm of your hand. It allows teams to monitor a player’s vitals in real time, the way runners measure improvement, the way engineers in NASCAR monitor the performance of an engine.
Data gathered by some football teams has altered practice schedules, and in some cases playing time, to enhance better health and performance.
The Panthers assigned intern Brett Nenaber to monitor their GPS system and report his findings to head trainer Ryan Vermillion.
“He’d say, ‘Listen, [Player X] has been working too hard this week. We’ve got to back off,’" Gettleman said. “And we did it."
Gettleman referred to a rash of hamstring injuries early in the year to key players such as running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker before the team began to fully utilize GPS.
“As soon as we got on that GPS and really understood what it was telling us ... we were pretty stinking healthy at the end of the year," he said.
Gettleman said GPS definitely is a tool the Panthers will use going forward.
Bailey, 14, recently lost his battle with brain cancer.
Newton was moved when he heard the news and tweeted this on Friday.
Thankful to have had the opportunity to meet Matthew in his short time here. An amazing kid with an... http://t.co/jclnmnmbwe— Cameron Newton (@CameronNewton) February 20, 2015
In his message, Newton included: “LET US NOT TAKE FOR GRAN1T L1FE.... AND THE PEOPLE THAT MAY COME iN OUR L1FE's!!!"
Newton has shown an even greater appreciation for life since his December car crash in which he suffered two small fractures in his lower back.
Bailey’s bucket list, originally posted on his church’s website, created quite a stir on social media. Thanks to a lot of generous people, he was able to complete much of it.
Here’s the list:
- Throw a football with Cam Newton
- Play H-O-R-S-E with Bobcats owner Michael Jordan
- Tebow with Tim Tebow
- Play a pickup game with Kevin Durant
- Meet Johnny Manziel
- Go to the NCAA Final Four
- Visit Cameron Indoor Arena, meet Coach K
- Sit courtside for a Miami Heat game
- Go to the Super Bowl
- Go to an NBA Finals game
Position of need: As general manager Dave Gettleman is quick to remind he'll never pass on a quality big man on the defensive or offensive line. He stunned many by selecting a defensive tackle in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft. With veteran defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and with no one player proven ready to replace Greg Hardy at defensive end, there may be better options on the defensive front than at offensive tackle at No. 25.
Three players the Panthers could target in the draft:
Eddie Goldman (DT), Florida State: Imagine adding this 6-foot-3, 315-pound specimen to a four-man rotation that includes 2013 first-round pick Star Lotulelei and 2013 second-round pick Kawann Short. Goldman has violent hands, and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott loves defensive linemen with violent hands. If he slips to No. 25 don't look for him to slip further.
Jordan Phillips (DT), Oklahoma: At 6-5, 334 he's definitely a space-eater that ties up blocks and allows the linebackers to make plays like Colin Cole has done for Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. He has the potential to be a dominant run stopper and Gettleman won't pass on a dominant run stopper. Of the three I mention here, he might be the most likely to be available.
Arik Armstead (DE), Oregon: Some have the 6-8, 290-pound Armstead playing end in a 3-4 scheme, but he also fits the mold of a player that could play end and tackle in Carolina's 4-3 scheme. He's big and powerful, and has great quickness of the edge. He could be totally disruptive to a passing game. He's projected by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper to be a top 10 pick, but others have him falling.
Position of need: The defense took a huge step forward with third-year player Josh Norman at one cornerback and rookie Bené Benwikere at the other over the final four games. But as you saw in the NFC divisional playoff loss at Seattle when the receiver got behind Benwikere for a 63-yard touchdown, the former San Jose State star doesn't have elite speed. Ideally, the Panthers would like to move Benwikere back to the nickel spot where he exceled if they can find a shutdown corner to play every down.
Three players the Panthers could target in the draft:
Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State: At 6-1 and 182 pounds Waynes has the size as well as the speed to be an elite cover corner. He likely will be gone between 10 and 20, but definitely a player that would get serious consideration if he slips to Carolina at 25. A physical player that can defend well in both man and zone pass coverage. Excels at defending big receivers that are becoming prevalent in the league. Also defends the run well. Would be a steal.
Marcus Peters, CB, Washington: He also has the size (6-0, 193) and speed to match up with most wide receivers. He also has issues with discipline. Was dismissed from the team this past season after reported multiple run-ins with the coaching staff. Then again, Josh Norman lacked discipline in terms of his play when Carolina initially signed him and he turned into the team's best corner this past season. Talent-wise, Peters may be the best corner in the daft if that talent can be harnessed.
Jalen Collins, CB, LSU: Extremely raw with only 10 career starts after declaring for the draft following his junior season, but in terms of size (6-2, 198) and speed he is the complete package. A physical player that also has done well in run support. Many believe his best years are ahead of him with good coaching. Carolina secondary coach Steve Wilks would provide that.
That DeCoud was released doesn’t come as a surprise. He had become a liability because of his speed and was replaced for the final four regular-season games and two playoff games by rookie Tre Boston.
The Panthers also made official the signing of offensive lineman Chris Scott to a one-year deal. Because the Panthers signed him to an extension prior to free agency, no other team can make an offer.
For DeCoud, it was the second time he has been cut in as many years. He was cut by the Atlanta Falcons after the 2013 season. Before the 2012 season, Atlanta gave him a five-year, $17.5 million deal.
Carolina signed DeCoud last offseason to fill a need at free safety, where he started 11 games.
I put this to an unscientific vote Monday on Twitter. Sixty-one responded. I’m not sure if the low number shows a lack of interest or if fans in North Carolina were more focused on the winter storm that hit the area.
Hardy had charges of assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder dropped eight days ago because his accuser refused to cooperate with the district attorney’s office. The DA’s office cited evidence of a civil settlement between Hardy and Holder when dropping the charges.
Hardy remains on the NFL’s exempt list, where he has been since September, while the league conducts its own investigation to determine whether he violated the league’s personal conduct code.
The league filed a motion on Friday asking to unseal documents from a July 15 trial in which Hardy was found guilty by a Mecklenburg County Judge.
Hardy faces a minimum six-game suspension by the league if found to have violated the conduct code.
The Panthers aren’t expected to re-sign Hardy, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 10. But there are players and coaches in the organization who are lobbying for team owner Jerry Richardson to consider bringing Hardy back, possibly at a discounted price.
Carolina paid Hardy $13.1 million last season. He played in only one game.
While waiting on the NFL to complete its investigation, to which officials said there is no timetable, I decided to poll the fans on what they’d like to see happen.
Here’s what some of you had to say:
@DNewtonespn Yes. Because I don't want to see him in Red & Black, head-hunting the man we're about to pay 100 million dollars. - Austin (@auStallings) February 17, 2015
@DNewtonespn yes. Pass rushers are too valuable. LUKE is the engine and Hardy is the key. Without Hardy makes difference in 7 wins & 12 wins - Nick Bolick" (@NICKBOLICK3) February 17, 2015
@DNewtonespn YES! He's a premier DE, and we're built around the defense. Just give him a short leash with maybe a zero tolerance policy— Kiema Huntley (@Panther_Slim) February 17, 2015
@DNewtonespn yes, you don't let talent out the door with an aging johnson. Contingent on a 4-7 mil a year salary tho— Randy Romich (@RandyRomich) February 16, 2015
@DNewtonespn i have to say that we should pass on resigning him. Hopefully we can make something outta the compensatory pick— James (@jbedwards101) February 16, 2015
@DNewtonespn Yes, he is too good to let go. But he MUST take a major discount for the team. I mean HUUUUGE.— #NickKeepPounding (@NickTheSlick12) February 16, 2015
@DNewtonespn No. Too much $ for a guy you can't trust not to screw up again. Defense can be solid without him.— gbein83 (@gbein83) February 16, 2015
@DNewtonespn absolutely not. Major character concerns w/ too big a price tag just as we're getting cap space ready for Luke and Cam deals— Dylan Arant (@arant_dylan5) February 16, 2015
A closer look at the areas the Carolina Panthers could address in the draft. We’ll look today at the wide receivers, who are scheduled to work out Saturday in Indianapolis.
Position of need: The Panthers will be looking for a speed receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year’s first-round pick. Undrafted rookie Philly Brown filled that role to a degree late last season, but there’s always room for improvement, particularly if that player also could fill a need as a kick returner. Brown didn’t. As much as quarterback Cam Newton needs a left tackle to protect him, he also needs more talented and reliable receivers in order to open up the offense. That this again is a deep draft at receiver could help fill that need. That the Panthers have Brown makes it less a sense of urgency to get that player in the first round unless the right player is there.
Three players the Panthers could target in the draft:
Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State: Definitely a dynamic player who can blow the top off of defenses with his speed. He’s known for getting behind the secondary and making big plays, sometimes of the one-handed variety. He had only 33 catches this past season, but for 931 yards – an amazing 28.2 yards per catch -- and 12 touchdowns. He also was a gunner in college, so he would fill another need on special teams that struggled in 2014.
Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: He has been clocked in the 4.3-second range, so he definitely has the speed to stretch the field. Cam Newton definitely would like to add a player from the school he led to the 2010 national championship to the roster. The knock on Coates is he’s shown limited ability as a route-runner and he hasn’t been consistent catching. Pairing him with Carolina wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl would be a benefit.
Phillip Dorsett, WR, Miami: At 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds, Dorsett is built in the mold of Steve Smith, Carolina’s all-time leading receiver. He has elite speed – maybe the fastest in Indy, reportedly shooting for 4.29 seconds in the 40 at the combine -- excels at creating separation and is willing to fight for extra yards. He caught 36 passes for 871 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so you can see he’s a home-run threat.
The team announced on Monday that secondary coach/passing-defense coordinator Steve Wilks has been promoted to the position.
Wilks took over many of the head coaching duties last month on the day that Rivera’s house caught on fire the week of an NFC playoff game.
It was Wilks who passed along the message from Rivera to players and other staff members that it would be business as usual while Rivera stayed at home to handle issues from the fire that caused $500,000 in damages.
A native of Charlotte, Wilks will remain the secondary coach where he has been at Carolina since 2012. His unit finished 11th against the pass in 2014 and sixth in 2013.
Carolina improved from 24th in the NFL in pass defense in 2011 to 13th in Wilks’ first season.
Prior to coming to Carolina, Wilks served as the secondary coach at San Diego (2009-11), where Rivera was the defensive coordinator from 2008-10. He had assistant head coaching duties for the Chargers in 2011.
Wilks also served as the defensive backs coach at Chicago in 2006 when Rivera was the defensive coordinator.