The Carolina Panthers front office has taken a lot of criticism for it’s handling of the Wide Receiver position this offseason, and understandably so, but have things really gotten worse at the position? Granted, any time a team fail to retain the top 4 players at any position, particularly a skill position, it’s going to make headlines. That sort of clearing out at a position generally follows a 2-14 season not a 14-2 season (especially one that ends a 4 year playoff drought.) And, yes, you’re also bound to make headlines any time you release a franchise icon like Steve Smith (especially when just over 40% of his 2014 salary is guaranteed.) But, a closer look at each move reveals that the 2014 Panthers WR group may well be better than their 2013 predecessors.
I still can’t quite say I agree with the release of Steve Smith, but upon further inspection of the roster moves that followed, I at least understand it. Putting aside whatever politics came into play between Smith and the front office the fact is the Panthers needed cap space, and even with Smith’s $3 million in guarantees the Panthers still saved $4 million against the cap (enough to pay the 2014 salaries of all 3 veteran signees and rookie Kelvin Benjamin) by cutting him.
But we’re here to talk production not finances, right? Remove the high profile name and what you are left with is a 35 year old receiver coming off a sharp drop in production: 1,174 yds on 74 rec 4 TDs in 2012 to 745 yds on 64 rec 4TDs in 2013. Smith had just 10 fewer receptions but was gaining, on average, 4.5 yards less per catch. He also failed to eclipse 100 yards in any one game, and in fact never even reached 75 yards receiving in a game. While I do believe Smith still has value, I also think he’s seen his last 1,000 yard season. Bottom Line: if we’re talking career Smith is irreplaceable, but we’re talking 2013 and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Jerricho Cotchery have similar production in a Panthers offense that will spread the ball around among a number of targets rather than rely on a traditional #1 WR.
Brandon Lafell was next on the depth chart, though I don’t think anyone was really shocked or disappointed to see him go (possibly even including Lafell considering he landed a 3 year $11million deal with Patriots.) Lafell, wasn’t terrible or even bad, but in 4 years he never eclipsed 50 rec or 700 yards and wasn’t exactly known as a reliable target. Lafell flashed his potential in 2012 catching 44 passes for 677 yards and 4TD in 14 games including 12 starts. But when given the starters spot for 16 games in 2013 his production dipped just slightly he caught 5 more passes (49) for 50 fewer yard (627) though he did add a touchdown (5.) Pretty good numbers, but nothing special and ultimately replaceable. And don’t let the Patriots contract fool you, Lafell will be fighting off Kenbrell Thompkins for the #4 spot on the depth chart and was likely brought in as a versatile insurance policy for the still unproven Aaron Dobson and the oft injured Danny Amendola. In Carolina, I’d be looking for Jason Avant to take a lot of his targets out of the slot.
Ted Ginn is actually the guy I really would have liked to see re-signed, he had the lowest yardage total (554), but averaged 15.4 yards per catch and showed good chemistry with Newton on deep downfield throws. But Ginn is also a 29 year old who’s best used as a #3 receiver (which is the same knock facing Cotchery and Avant.) Of course, it will likely be 6th year journeyman Tiquan Underwood taking over the deep ball duties for Carolina as he had success in a similar role last season in Tampa Bay. He also runs a 4.31 4o yard dash and is a couple inches taller than Ginn. He does, unfortunately share the same knock that Ginn has faced his whole career of being somewhat unreliable, but At 27 years old and coming off back to back seasons of 20+receptions, and 400+ yards receiving with division rival Tampa Bay, Underwood should benefit from an increase in targets and QB talent in the Panthers offense.
As you can see, this is still no all star cast, but it really doesn’t look worse than last year. Having Cam Newton throwing the ball bolstered Ginn and Lafell’s stats and a 35 year old Steve Smith isn’t nearly as difficult to replace as even a 33 year old Steve Smith. Oh, and the 4th guy from the “top 4 guys” was Domenik Hixon who caught 7 passes last season and unfortunately has already seen his 2014 season come to an end after tearing his ACL in camp with the Bears.
The Panthers “4th guy” in this year’s line-up will be the 6’5, 240lb Kelvin Benjamin. I’m calling him the 4th guy because I’ve saved him for last, reports from camp are speaking highly of the first round draft pick. He’s been described as a “vacuum” by his position coach and it would be a surprise not to see him lined up outside, opposite Jerricho Cotchery, in week 1. The concern with Benjamin is that he’s still raw. He’ll have to work on his route running and concentration. He’s not a burner on the outside, but he has good speed for his size (4.53 in the 40 yard dash.) If Benjamin can get his ability to match the opportunity he could have a Keenan Allen like season, but I don’t think he has to have one for the Panthers to be successful. He’s going to be most valuable in the red zone, and on deep passes that allow Cam to put the ball up for grabs and allow Benjamin to use his size to come down with it.
So, maybe the Panthers did stick Cam Newton with a bunch of number 3 WR’s and a rookie, but can you really say that it’s any worse than what he had in 2013? Doesn’t the promise of Kelvin Benjamin make them even better than last year? The Panthers won’t rely on any one guy. Or even any one position. Tight End, Greg Olsen, lead the team in yards, touchdowns, and reception in 2013 and Ed Dickson was added on a low risk contract to help in two TE sets. RB Deangelo Williams had a career high 333 yards receiving and fellow RB’s Jon Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Kenyon Barner are all capable pass catchers out of the backfield. The Panthers never wanted Superstars at WR, they wanted role players, and that’s exactly what they got. They signed Cotchery and Avant because they knew exactly what they were getting, polished veteran route runners that won’t drop the ball. They signed Underwood hoping he could provide a spark and then they drafted Benjamin to keep Cam Newton excited about his future in Carolina as they try to work out a long term contract.