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Hill continues climb back

CHARLOTTE – It wasn't the type of noise Stephen Hill hoped to make.

Just as buzz had built that Hill, a former second-round draft choice of the New York Jets, might be ready to contribute in a significant way for the Panthers, his 2015 season ended before it started. On a non-contact play early in training camp, the wiry wide receiver screamed in agony when he blew out his right knee trying to make a catch over the middle.

"Seeing that injury, it was shaky for me to even look at it," fellow wide receiver Devin Funchess said.

But Funchess and others were happy to see Hill take part in installation and some individual periods when the Panthers opened organized team activities Tuesday, less than 10 months after the injury.

"That's great," Funchess said. "He looked good out there."

Hill said he was told it would be a full year before he could make it back. He wouldn't go so far as to say he's ahead of schedule because he's not taking part in team periods at OTAs, but he did make it a personal goal to be involved in some way.

"I wanted to be out here," Hill said. "But I'm not going to be in any rush. You want to be out there with the guys, but you've just got to take your time.

"I'm just trying to do all I can with what they've given me to do, and then I'll just go from there."

Hill's combination of speed (4.36 in the 40) and size (6-4 with long arms) made him an early-round target in the 2012 NFL Draft. But he was raw as a receiver coming from Georgia Tech's option offense and it showed – he flashed at times during his first two NFL seasons but never consistently put it together.

Still, it came as a surprise to many when the Jets waived him in the final roster cutdown in 2014. Four days later, the Panthers signed Hill to their practice squad, where he remained the entire season. Last offseason he looked like a player poised to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster before a knee injury placed him on injured reserve for the third time in his career.

Again Hill found himself in the role of spectator, this time with a grueling rehab in front of him.

"It was a hard journey, especially seeing the type of season these guys had and wanting to be able to help them out," Hill said. "They still made me a part of the team, but it was really hard. My wife and my family did a great job of helping me through it."

When Hill joined the Panthers shortly before the 2014 season opener, Carolina was in search of an identity at receiver. Now it's a loaded position, with Kelvin Benjamin set to return from his own knee injury following a 1,000-yard rookie season; Funchess and Philly Brown continuing to build on strong starts to their careers; and veteran Ted Ginn, Jr. continuing to make major contributions.

Hill, however, isn't losing sleep over the competition, even with 14 receivers all told on the 90-man roster and not nearly enough room for them all on the 53-man roster.

"I'm just going to do what I have to do now, and we'll see what happens in training camp," Hill said. "Every year you have to prove it, but I'm just going to take it day by day."

View photos from the first week of Carolina's organized team activities.

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