Rookies work hard at first practice

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CHARLOTTE – At a certain point, the pre-draft gauntlet that NFL prospects go through can become monotonous.

But for running back Cameron Artis-Payne, what takes place on the practice field never gets old.

"After all the pre-draft stuff, it's good to get back to this," Artis-Payne said after he and his fellow draftees practiced as Carolina Panthers for the first time at Friday's rookie minicamp. "It's definitely real. It just hit me coming out here that it's time for the NFL. You dream about this as a kid, and now this is really it."

Moments after walking back to Bank of America, it got even more real for Artis-Payne when he became the fourth of the Panthers' five draft choices to sign his rookie contract. Artis-Payne hustled back from the practice field, showered, signed, then went straight to a special teams meeting.

It's a whirlwind for all the rookies, none more so than the Panthers' first-round pick.

"I've got to learn the defense as fast as I can, be a good teammate and compete," said linebacker Shaq Thompson, the No. 25 overall selection in last week's draft. "I just have to keep asking questions and keep getting feedback.

"I was up pretty late with (cornerback) Bene (Benwikere) last night, going over the playbook, just trying to get everything in so I can play fast."

While the Panthers' other draft picks are in position to remain in Charlotte after the rookie minicamp concludes Saturday, Thompson must return to the University of Washington where he has about a month of fourth-quarter classes to compete.

For some people, that circumstance combined with the potential pressure created by being a team's first-round selection could really weigh them down.

Not Thompson.

"It doesn't matter if I was first round or undrafted," he said, "We're all getting the same opportunity when it comes down to it."

This minicamp is all about opportunity. In addition to the Panthers' five draft picks, 10 undrafted rookie free agents, 35 invited tryouts and four qualifying players who were on Carolina's practice squad last season are participating.

Understandably, though, most eyes gravitated to the draft picks, who tried not to be wide-eyed themselves.

"This is exciting," fifth-round linebacker David Mayo said. "It's very fast-paced. You've got to learn the defense as fast as you can, and that's what I'm trying to do.

"Competition brings out the best in you, and everybody is here to compete."

The challenge can be taxing both mentally and physically. Second-round wide receiver Devin Funchess said his focus at this early juncture is on learning new routes, but there's more still to the adjustment to the NFL.

"You've got to learn different routes than we ran in school and get used to the footwork, and you've got to get after it," Funchess said. "You thought you were in shape when you were home working with trainers, but then you come out here and it's different.

"We've got to get used to it, and we'll be all right."

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