One of the best things about the Carolina Panthers since Ron Rivera became head coach is the forthright nature by which he addresses the media, and fans. There's very little guesswork to be done, very little smokescreen or subterfuge; what you hear is what you get.
We've seen a few players singled out by Rivera as players he has personally discussed, and/or taken a personal interest in. Obviously this was the case with Cam Newton, then he turned his attention to Greg Hardy and now wide receiver Brandon LaFell has been talked about in a positive light. Coach Rivera discussed the need for LaFell to not assume he's arrived, and made him the bellwether for the entire organization- one brimming with promise and potential, but one that needs to remain humble and willing to work.
If Rivera didn't see promise in LaFell then we wouldn't have taken Amini Silatolu in the second round. The Panthers spent time with Stephen Hill, and other receivers available at the pick- but ultimately decided to solidify the line, putting their faith into LaFell. In a lot of ways this faith is warranted, and we'll look at Brandon LaFell's 2011 season after the jump.
There were myriad reasons he didn't get to start out of the gate, but the biggest reason was a need to have someone on the field for almost every offensive down who knew Rob Chudzinski's offense inside and out. This player was Legedu Naanee, and while his on-field performance wasn't anything to write home about, if you listened to the players on the team they consistently lauded Naanee and his importance in helping the young players understand what to do.
For ten weeks LaFell waited. Used as a 3rd WR he had a few moments, but these were mostly fleeting and through ten games he had just twenty-one receptions. The time came to turn the #2 job over to LaFell, and with the exception of week 15 against Houston he had a solid run.
In the six games LaFell started he totaled 15 receptions, 268 yards and 1 TD. I'm well aware that extrapolation is a dangerous thing, but if these numbers held true for a 16 game season we're looking at yearly totals of 40 receptions, 716 yards, 3 TDs. Given that he is still growing as a receiver and a route runner these are very good numbers for a #2 receiver on a team where the #1 had over 1,300 yards.
In looking around the NFL here are how 2nd receivers stacked up in these situations:
- Nate Burleson: 73 receptions, 757 yards, 3 TD
- Deion Branch: 51 receptions, 710 yards, 5 TD
- Early Doucet: 54 receptions, 689 yards, 5 TD
- Hakeem Nicks: 76 receptions, 1,152 yards, 7 TD
In these comparisons Nicks is the outlier, because in many ways he was still the Giants #1 option on passing downs, even with Victor Cruz playing out of his mind. Obviously it would be nice, but Cruz doesn't come along every day, so I'm hesitant to compare LaFell to Nicks.
That being said- you'll see that a projected 40 reception, 716 yard season compares very favorably to other receivers who had a true 1,300 yard WR to compete for receptions with. In the case of Detroit and New England they also run their offenses heavily through their TEs. This too changes the complexion of the importance of a #2 WR.
Take New England out of the picture for a second because what they have in Gronkowski and Hernandez coupled with Welker is near impossible to replicate. Look at Detroit and how their top three weapons compare to the Panthers on passing downs:
1st option: Calvin Johnson/ Steve Smith
3rd option: Nate Burleson/ Brandon LaFell
As great as Steve Smith is, comparing him to Megatron is a hard sell. However, across all three spots you'll see the Panthers and Lions stack up quite favorably. This is important because the Lions were a better offense in 2011, and while they only averaged seven more yards per game, they scored almost five points more- and that's what the Panthers are lacking.
In terms of the known quantities the Panthers have on offense the future is looking bright. Steve Smith still has some left in the tank, Greg Olsen played well in his first season and will have more options to shine being the featured TE and Brandon LaFell is improving. I'm not sure LaFell will ever have the ability to become a #1 receiver due to speed/separation issues, but from what we saw in 2011 he looks to be a solid option as the #2 receiver, and someone who falls in line with league averages for a 2nd receiver who plays with a 1,300 yard #1 WR.