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Minicamp notebook: Diontae Johnson creating plays, and competition

Diontae Johnson

CHARLOTTE — Diontae Johnson made one of those plays Tuesday they brought him here to make.

The new Panthers wide receiver made several nice catches during Tuesday's minicamp practice. But of particular interest was a late touchdown, when he connected with Bryce Young during red zone work, while he was covered by cornerback Jaycee Horn.

That's the kind of attention Johnson will get, and Horn's the kind of test the offense needs.

"Just lining up and going to work," Johnson said. "There's nothing specific about it. It's like at the end of the day, you line up and play football, and that's what we're doing, trying to make each other better. Iron sharpens iron.

"I'm going to do everything I can to make his game better and I'm sure he's going to do the same."

That was part of an energetic finish to practice (which was followed by a Josey Jewell pick-six on the next play), and head coach Dave Canales said it's the kind of energy he wants during the "final exam" at the end of OTAs.

"It's great, and it's the message I'm trying to sell to the team — we make us," Canales said. "That's how it works when we're all pursuing our best. It's not, we're not trying to kick the other guy's butt across from us. That's not the mentality. The mentality is, can I find my best today?

"That'll be good enough, and that'll be really challenging for the guy across from you, whether it's the matchups inside with, you know, Robert Hunt and Derrick Brown or whether it's a matchup outside, we had Diontae against Jaycee Horn. I mean, that's a premier matchup in this league, you know? Those are the things that are exciting, and especially as we get tighter and tighter with our defensive calls, the offense has to execute at another level. And so it went back and forth a little bit today, and that was really cool to see."

It was also cool to see Johnson out there as one of the primary additions for Young and the offense this offseason. He's worked out on his own for stretches (posting plenty of video evidence during voluntary OTAs), but has been here enough to create some degree of expectations.

The Panthers struggled to get separation and get open last year, but those are areas Johnson excelled in when he was with the Steelers.

So he's been careful to share his knowledge with a young group, passing along his expertise, and spending his time here alongside Young, to build a rapport with his new quarterback.

"He embraced me, and I embraced him," Johnson said. "So, our relationship is steady growing every day. I try to be in his hip pocket; he's in my hip pocket for whatever play I need help with, or I try to tell him what I see when I'm out there running my routes. Little stuff like that, that's only going to continue to help us grow.

"And I feel like he has that relationship with each and every one of us out there as a receiver group or any other position group out there. Just having that relationship with your quarterback so that you respect him and have trust in one another. So it's been going pretty good."

— While the back-to-back plays could be considered a mixed bag, Canales said he's much more worried about the overall operation heading into the final day of pre-training camp work.

He called it one of Young's best days but said the challenge will be continuing to build.

"I think I saw a little bit of it today, and really, the challenge that I had was that the operation needs to be the NFL standard," Canales said. "The tempo between plays, getting the calls, getting to the line, the defense, getting their call, getting lined up, evaluating the formations, evaluating the personnel, those types of things. That's really what I'm trying to look for because we do need to come into camp and be able to pick up right where we left off from a tempo standpoint and a pre-snap standpoint.

"So we're looking for that pre-snap perfection. It was pretty good today."

— The Panthers were still missing a group of players coming back from injuries and offseason surgeries, including players such as outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum.

Wonnum worked on the side with fellow projected starter Jadeveon Clowney, getting teaching points from position coach Tem Lukabu. He's expected to be back for training camp after some complications in his recovery from quad surgery.

The Panthers still aren't particularly deep at that position since Amaré Barno is still working his way back from last year's ACL tear. They were also without Eku Leota, who suffered a calf injury last week. Then, during special teams practice, DJ Johnson was carted off with an apparent knee injury, though Canales didn't have an update on his condition.

That left Clowney, K'Lavon Chaisson (back Tuesday for the first time this offseason), Luiji Vilain, Kenny Dyson, Derrick McLendon, and Cam Gill at the position.

Rookie receiver Xavier Legette didn't practice because of a recent hamstring issue, but Canales said that wasn't a long-term concern since they're about to head into the long break before camp.

"I think if we're playing a game this week, he's practicing and we're getting ready to go," Canales said of Legette. "But right now, this is not the time to test that. So I think being cautious on that side, looking towards training camp, is the right thing to do."

— Also sidelined Tuesday was running back Miles Sanders, who has been bothered by a minor heel injury.

Sanders has lived a lifetime in the last 15 months, signed as a free agent last March with thoughts of being an offensive centerpiece, struggling through a down year (as many here did), losing the starting job to Chuba Hubbard, then witnessing regime change, and then the addition of another high-profile back in Jonathon Brooks.

He's been in competitive situations before in Philadelphia and said that as he enters his sixth season, he understands the only way is to keep his focus forward.

"Just the ups and downs in this league, this league is very similar to life, in my opinion," Sanders said. "And so you're just going to go through all types of emotions all throughout the year. So for seven months straight, you've just got to take advantage of it and control it, whatever, whatever you can.

"But you know, the past is the past, and I'm here now."

He's also confident that as much as Canales talks about running the ball this year, there's room for all of them.

"Looking at the new scheme, we're going to run the ball, we're going to run the ball, we're going to run the ball, we're going to run the ball," Sanders said, and that's four times if you're counting.

"And we're going to create a lot of opportunities for the guys that we have to get the ball in their hands, and it's going to be a fun year. It's going to be a very fun year."

Check out photos from behind the scenes of the Panthers' 2024 production day.