The Carolina Panthers’ improved depth at wide receiver took its first hit Sunday with the expected news that Stephen Hill was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Hill, the former Jets’ second-round pick, was competing for one of the final receiving spots during training camp. So while his injury will not impact the Panthers’ starting rotation, it will have a trickle-down effect on the players vying for the fifth, and perhaps, sixth receiver positions on the 53-man roster.
But that’s not what returning wideout Brenton Bersin was focused on Sunday as the Panthers dealt with the fallout from Hill’s injury.
“You never want to see a guy get hurt, especially a friend like Stephen. It’s a terrible thing that happened, and he was a great player. So losing a guy like that does not help our team,” Bersin said after practice. “Just having him in the room, even though it’s competition for me, makes everyone better. So as the second-tier players, we’ve got to step up and fill that void.”
Undrafted rookie Paul Browning was signed to take the roster spot of Hill, who was waived/injured. Hill, who spent last season on Carolina’s practice squad, will revert to the team’s injured reserve list if he clears waivers.
The Panthers have 11 receivers on the roster, about half of whom will not be around when they travel to Jacksonville in Week 1. The team kept five receivers in general manager Dave Gettleman’s first two seasons.
This year’s list includes several locks, beginning with No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin, second-round draft pick Devin Funchess and speed receiver/punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. Jerricho Cotchery, who caught 48 passes for 580 yards last season, is a 12-year veteran whose leadership skills are valued by the front office and coaching staff.
After that the picture gets a little cloudier.
Bersin, a former Charlotte Latin and Wofford standout, and Corey Brown made the roster last season as first-year-players. Other additions, such as Jarrett Boykin and Mike Brown, have more experience than some players Bersin and Corey Brown beat out last season.
Last year’s camp roster included young wideouts Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, who was returning from injury, and free agent Tiquan Underwood. None made the team.
“Our position group this year has way more competition than last year,” Bersin said. “So I’ll try to do better this year than I did last year.”
Bersin, who had 13 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown in 2014, rattled off the names of five players Sunday when asked about the receiving competition.
“You’ve got your locks like Kelvin obviously, who’s the No. 1. You’ve got (Corey), Ted. Funchess got drafted in the second round. Cotch also is a vet. We’ve got a lot of people in the room you could say are locks to make the team,” Bersin said.
“So there’s not that many spots left after that. So you’ve got to compete with all the other guys they brought in (and) all the rookies. So it’ll be a good camp and a good preseason.”
Boykin, who grew up in Charlotte and played at Butler, is among the new acquisitions.
He had a 49-catch season two years ago for Green Bay when Randall Cobb was injured, but his production plummeted to three catches for 23 yards last season when he became an afterthought in the Packers’ offense.
Boykin admits he still was learning the Panthers’ offense during organized team activities and minicamp and hopes he can make a bigger splash now that he’s comfortable in the system.
“The way they coach the offense here you’re expected to know each position. It’s just a matter of getting out there and making a play,” he said. “Now it’s time to just let loose and play.”
Bersin had one drop in each of the first two practices at Wofford, but he predicted it wouldn’t become a pattern. Bersin said coaches also can count on him to know every position.
“If Kelvin needs a breather, if Cotch needs a breather, or anyone, I can go in immediately and know what I’m doing,” Bersin said.
Running back Jonathan Stewart said it looks like the entire receiving group knows what it’s doing, the benefit of bringing in players such as Ginn, who was with the team in 2013, and a couple of other experienced wideouts.
Even with the injury to Hill, Stewart agrees there’s more competition at the position.
“There’s a lot of talent there. We’ve got a lot of speed, a lot of guys that are football smart,” Stewart said. “Compared to years previous, there’s a lot of guys that get it already.”
Wide receiver competition
The Panthers kept five receivers on their opening-week rosters each of the last two seasons. A look at how this year’s competition could shake out:
Kelvin Benjamin: Showed up at camp in shape and picked up where he left off as a rookie.
Devin Funchess: Second-round pick is a more fluid route-runner than some scouts suggested.
Ted Ginn Jr.: Has been beating everyone deep during the first few training camp practices.
On the bubble (4)
Jerricho Cotchery: Given his sure hands and leadership qualities, it’s hard to envision him getting left out.
Corey Brown: The receiver formerly known as Philly has speed and shiftiness.
Brenton Bersin: Steady, smart player knows every position and has the trust of the coaches.
Jarrett Boykin: Needs to make a splash at camp and in the preseason games after failing to make an impact during OTAs. He played at Butler High.
Long shots (4)
Mike Brown: Former Jaguars wideout caught 32 passes for 446 yards in 2013.
Damiere Byrd: His speed – he was a sprinter on South Carolina’s track team – can’t be ignored.
Avius Capers: Charlotte native was undrafted out of Johnson C. Smith. He played at Independence High.
Paul Browning: Undrafted rookie was signed Sunday at take Stephen Hill’s roster spot.