CHARLOTTE – Wide receiver Stephen Hill has always impressed with his amazing athletic ability and potential to make a big play at any given moment.
But when the former second-round draft choice landed on the Panthers' practice squad early last season, he began impressing his teammates with a more subtle attribute – one that should serve him well in his continued effort to regain relevance.
"He's had a great attitude from Day One," 12th-year wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "He just works so hard. He didn't come in as a guy who felt like he was entitled just because of where he was drafted. He just came in as a guy working on getting better."
That's exactly what Hill has done. Head coach Ron Rivera has mentioned on more than one occasion this offseason that Hill could help the Panthers in 2015, and Hill certainly wants to prove him right.
"Right now, it's just about making the team," Hill said during an exclusive interview with Panthers.com on the second day of organized team activities. "That's where my expectations are focused right now – just making the team and getting out there and helping out."
Three years ago, Hill didn't seem like the kind of player who would be battling for his football life. Following in the footsteps of Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas as Georgia Tech wide receivers who thrived in a run-first offense, Hill turned just 49 career catches into 1,248 yards and nine touchdowns.
He entered the NFL Draft following his junior season and then made a splash at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, tying for the fastest 40-yard dash time at the event (4.36 seconds), broad-jumping four inches farther than any other wide receiver and ranking fourth among receivers with a 39.5-inch vertical jump.
"He has so much spring in his legs," Cotchery said. "It's fun to watch, seeing him run and jump, especially working out this offseason when he's box-jumping and things like that. It's fun to watch, but he's really serious about his craft."
The New York Jets traded three picks to move up four spots in the second round of the 2012 draft and select the 6-4, 215-pounder with the 43rd overall selection.
Hill became the first rookie receiver to start a regular season opener for the Jets since 1995 and didn't disappoint two touchdown receptions. But playing on the only NFL team to finish short of 3,000 receiving yards in both 2012 and 2013, Hill totaled just two more touchdowns over those two years.
Unexpectedly, the Jets waived him in the final roster cutdown prior to last season. Four days later, the Panthers signed Hill to their practice squad, where he remained for the duration of the regular season and postseason.
"I kind of took it as a redshirt year in a way," said Hill, who faced a significant learning curve upon arriving in the NFL from a triple-option offense. "I've just been learning from (wide receivers) Coach (Ricky) Proehl, who was in the league for 17 years, so you can't go wrong. Learning was the focus last year."
Hill progressed to the point where he nearly made his Panthers debut at one of the most pivotal moments of the season. Rookie wide receiver Corey Brown injured his shoulder in Carolina's playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals. If Brown hadn't healed fast enough, Hill may well have been promoted to the active roster for the NFC Divisional Playoff against the Seattle Seahawks.
But Brown recovered, and Hill went right back to work. Hill, who still has practice squad eligibility but who has loftier goals, knows he again has his work cut out for him. The Panthers return all their top receivers from last season and added veteran speedster Ted Ginn, Jr., and 2015 second-round draft choice Devin Funchess in the offseason.
"That's a challenge for everyone," he said. "You've got your guys who were drafted, but there are also guys that were undrafted making plays on the field. It's definitely a challenge, but all you can do is take care of what you can take care of within yourself.
"I'm just working on my whole game. I've got to keep working on myself."