A couple of key players for the Carolina Panthers are getting closer to returning from injuries.
Defensive end Charles Johnson and rookie receiver Devin Funchess both participated in positional drills during Tuesday’s practice and could be back in team drills by the end of the week.
Johnson missed the first two exhibitions with a calf strain, while Funchess sat out last week’s exhibition against Miami with a pulled hamstring. Panthers coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility Johnson could play Friday night against New England after two strenuous days of rehab exercises Monday and Tuesday.
“We’ll see how he reacts to everything (Wednesday) morning and then we’ll go from there,” Rivera said. “If you see him working with a group (during team drills), there’s a good chance he may play on Friday night.”
Funchess, who ran routes Tuesday and caught passes from Cam Newton, is the presumptive No. 1 wideout in the wake of Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending knee injury.
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has been out since Aug. 3, when he was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his surgically repaired right foot. Lotulelei is still in a protective boot, but Rivera did not rule him out for the Sept. 13 opener at Jacksonville.
“But the key will be when he does get (the boot) off and how his conditioning is,” Rivera said. “We’re not going to try to expose a guy before he needs to be out there. So we’ll see. But my understanding right now is he’s right on track.”
Rivera said getting those players back – as well as reserve tight end Brandon Williams, who has been sidelined with a groin injury – will be beneficial to the rotations at certain positions.
“It’s always good to see those guys start going again because we need them,” he said. “It’s the time of training camp where the nicks and the bruises and bumps and sprains start showing up a little bit more. The hard part is guys end up taking more reps than they need to, and that’s where you get more injuries.”
Rookie OT Williams earning reps on left side
Rookie offensive tackle Daryl Williams is a man of few words, but that hasn’t stopped him from being noticed during his first few weeks as a pro.
Williams worked mostly with the second team at right tackle in training camp at Spartanburg, but his role has expanded since a strong showing in the practices with the Dolphins last week. Williams has taken snaps at both right and left tackle, which has allowed the coaching staff to experiment with different combinations up front.
Rivera said Williams, a fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has developed quickly much the way right guard Trai Turner did as a rookie last season.
“He’s progressing very nicely,” Rivera said of Williams. “One thing we are starting to do is look at him a little more at left tackle, as well. He’s done some nice things as a right tackle.”
Williams (6-6, 335) said the reps against Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cameron Wake were valuable, though he only would go so far as to say he did “all right” against the Dolphins’ highly regarded linemen.
But Rivera believes Williams’ success against Miami gave him a big confidence boost.
“Last week he looked good in those 1-on-1s,” Rivera said. “I think the realization that he’s capable of playing up to that level kind of sparked him. And as you watched him play, you saw the physicality.”
Suggs’ hit has Rivera looking to protect his QB
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs’ hit to the knees of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford on Saturday has sparked debate about when a quarterback is considered a runner and becomes fair game for defensive players.
Suggs was penalized for roughing the passer. But NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino said the referee was mistaken because Bradford, who handed off to Darren Sproles on the play, had not re-established himself as a passer.
Eagles coach Chip Kelly disagreed with Blandino’s interpretation, saying not every handoff by the quarterback is a zone-read play.
The back-and-forth is of interest to the Panthers, who have run the zone read effectively since drafting quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick in 2011. Rivera indicated he agreed with Kelly, but said there is a lot of gray area.
“Part of it is just how obvious the handoff is. If the handoff has been given and the (quarterback) takes a second step, you’re not allowed to hit him,” Rivera said. “There’s a lot of interpretation on it. We try to make sure we’re aware of it, our quarterback’s aware of it and we try to take care of him that way.”
Rivera said the NFL sent teams a video last season to try to clarify the situations when quarterbacks can be hit without the ball.
“If he hands the ball off and continues the fake – you’ve got to be careful because some of these guys are really adept and good at faking the ball – then he becomes a live target,” Rivera said.