Stephen Hill could be ready to shine for Panthers in 2015

What kept wide receiver Stephen Hill on the Carolina Panthers' practice squad for the entire 2014 season wasn’t simply his ability to contribute.

Quarterback Joe Webb was a factor.

In Webb, the Panthers had somebody who could play quarterback, wide receiver and special teams. To make room for Hill on the 53-man roster a player would have to be cut, and Webb was considered too valuable.

The Panthers made that clear during the offseason by re-signing Webb to another one-year deal.

But Hill’s time on the practice squad wasn’t wasted. He improved to the point that coach Ron Rivera believes the New York Jets’ 2012 second-round pick is ready to be a factor in 2015.

“Very much so," Rivera said Wednesday during the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix. “He’s a guy we feel has an opportunity. We’re very excited about [seeing] Stephen during OTAs and minicamp.

“With his size [6-4, 215] and speed and his ability to get vertical, if he can assimilate to what we do -- and I think he will; he seems to be a very smart man -- he might be a guy that has an opportunity to contribute for us."

Hill is so close that Rivera doesn’t feel the sense of urgency to draft a speed receiver. That doesn’t mean the Panthers won’t take one in the first couple of rounds if a receiver is the best player available.

But, as Rivera said, the presence of Hill lessens that sense of urgency.

“It takes pressure off us, most certainly," Rivera said. “The big thing, we have a guy that potentially can contribute, and in a big way. And at the end of the day, you can sit back and say he was a second-round pick."

The Jets had high expectations for Hill. But between his lack of production and a history of drops, he never fulfilled them. He was cut at the end of training camp last season, and the Panthers were quick to stash him on their practice squad.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to take a step back and take a break," Rivera said. “The thing I liked about Stephen was how he contributed to our football team’s success. He came in. He had been a second-round pick. He had no assumptions, no entitlement.

“He ran all the scout teams for us. He ran them hard. Gave us great looks, which is what makes us excited, 'cause you watch a guy perform who could very easily dog it, and he didn’t. And you saw him grow. You saw him make catches. You saw him get comfortable in his own skin again."

The Panthers signed free agent Ted Ginn Jr. to fill the need of a speed receiver to play opposite 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin. Ginn also was brought in to fill a big need as a kick returner.

Carolina also has a speed receiver in Philly Brown, an undrafted player out of Ohio State who played well at times last season.

Athletically, Hill has the tools to be better than both.

“We saw him begin to get comfortable," Rivera said. “There was no pressure on him for a season, so he relaxed and [was] really showing that he is capable."

Because the roster isn’t set, Hill now has a chance to win a spot on his own merit.

“The hard part about giving other guys opportunities is you’re going to eliminate somebody that you don’t want to," Rivera said. “That was our situation [last year]. We didn’t want to cut a guy to have to activate a guy and potentially lose him."