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Hill adds drama to Panthers’ workouts

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was one day in May, two months before training camp and 107 days until the season opener. But for what it’s worth, Stephen Hill was the best receiver on the field Thursday as the Carolina Panthers wrapped up their first week of offseason practices.

With No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin nursing a strained hamstring and second-round pick Devin Funchess in Los Angeles at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere, Hill took advantage of the extra reps. And he wasn’t the only one.

Second-year receiver Corey Brown, who proclaimed he’s faster despite adding some bulk during the offseason, took turns with Hill burning a short-handed secondary.

“I thought they did a nice job,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It just turned out today, the day you guys got a chance to watch, one of the things that we were doing as far as installation is concerned, was working on our deep routes.”

The week’s first two practice sessions were closed to the media, but you don’t have to see to believe Carolina’s receiving corps is deeper than it was last year.

Benjamin is the unquestioned top guy, and the hope is Funchess will earn the No. 2 spot eventually this summer. Brown is coming off a productive first season and veteran Jerricho Cotchery should have one more year left in him. The Panthers re-added Ted Ginn and signed former Packer Jarrett Boykin.

But Hill offers the most intrigue. During individual drills, he had a drop and also heard an earful from receivers coach Ricky Proehl after running an imprecise route. But later, Hill sped past the defense three separate times to haul in long completions.

“We know he’s got the great speed and size and willingness to go out and do it, and today was a really good day for him,” Rivera said.

After the 2012 second-round pick flamed out with the Jets, Hill landed on Carolina’s practice squad last September. Plenty of fans boarded his hype train, but it never left the station. Each week, the Panthers could have brought him up to the active roster. They never did. Each week, 31 other teams could have signed him. They never did.

“It was a stressful time at first when it happened, but other than that I took it as a positive note. Learning how to be a complete receiver was my biggest focus,” Hill said.

“I took a step back to hopefully take 10 steps forward.”

Again, this was just one day in May. Hill isn’t yet a Pro Bowler, Brown isn’t the next DeSean Jackson and Ginn isn’t suddenly younger than 30. But this one day offered a glimpse of what a faster and deeper Panthers receiving corps could do .

“It takes a lot of pressure off of Kelvin. It takes a lot of pressure off of (tight end) Greg (Olsen). It takes a lot of pressure off of the running game,” Rivera said. “Couple that with Corey Brown — and Stephen Hill had a real big day — if we can put that kind of speed out there with those other types of receivers we’ve got, it’s going to add to what we want to do offensively.”

–The Panthers didn’t add much help at defensive end this offseason, and now they’re hoping someone emerges to start opposite Charles Johnson. Wes Horton, Kony Ealy, Mario Addison and Frank Alexander are in the mix.

Alexander, who was suspended most of last year after two failed drugs tests, is entering what Rivera called a “make-or-break season.” The fourth-year pro spent most of Thursday at the top of the depth chart, but the buzz after practice was Addison stood out among the DEs.

–New left tackle Michael Oher, who was bothered by a toe injury the last few seasons, said the toe is now “excellent” and “it hasn’t felt this good since I entered the NFL.”

–Panthers who didn’t participate Thursday: wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (hamstring; likely out until training camp), wide receiver Devin Funchess (excused absence for NFLPA Rookie Premiere); cornerback Bene Benwikere (hamstring), cornerback Garry Peters (hamstring); cornerback Charles Tillman (excused absence; personal reasons); linebacker Shaq Thompson (finishing the quarter at Washington) and fullback Lee Ward (finishing the quarter at Stanford).


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