The wide receiver position is one of the biggest and most competitive position battles that the Panthers coaching staff will get to see throughout the rest of the offseason. While, as always, Steve Smith will be the Panthers best receiver, no other receivers really have guaranteed spots. One could argue that Brandon LaFell has the second receiver position all but locked up, however a returning David Gettis and the two young speedsters in Joe Adams and Kealoha Pilares look to make their marks and win some playing time, along with a spot on the depth chart.
The Panthers also have returning 2011 players in Darwin Adams, Seyi Ajirotutu, and most notably, Armanti Edwards. The Panthers then have a bevy of different undrafted free agents, all of which looking to be the next Wes Welker. The Panthers will most likely roll with 6 receivers on the final roster, possibly keeping one or two of the other receivers on the 8 man practice squad.
The Panthers have been known to dip into their practice squad in times of injury, most recently with players like Josh Vaughan, Kion Wilson, and Thomas Keiser. Players like Thomas Keiser, who can keep working hard, can earn themselves play time as the Panthers are always looking for young talent to make an impact.
We will take a look at how the depth chart, practice squad, and more might pan out, after the jump.
Steve Smith. Steve Smith is coming off what many would consider a breakout season for him. After a Pro Bowl year in 2008, Steve Smith would be hampered by injuries, both on and off the field for two years(the Flag Football incident), a period I like to refer to as years 1 and 2 BC (Before Cam).
One major problem was the quarterback. In 2009, Steve Smith had to deal with Jake Delhomme's decline. However, towards the end of the season, Matt Moore came in and we saw flashes of what we all knew Steve Smith still was, and that's a fighter. However, he had to also endure a dismal 2010 season, where the team saw Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen, Brian St. Pierre, and Tony Pike all take snaps as the quarterback in an offense that ranked last in the NFL in just about every category. Steve Smith also battled injury this season, dealing with calf and ankle injuries for some of the season.
Then, Panthers fans witnessed something many of us really didn't believe: Steve Smith was part of the trade rumors. There were many different stories, such as the Patriots being interested, or the Panthers being willing to take a 3rd round pick (Yes, a THIRD ROUND PICK) for a player who once held the Triple Crown of the NFL's receivers (lead in Yards, Receptions, and Touchdowns). Then, along came Cam Newton. Steve Smith exploded back into relevance with a 1,394 yard, 7 touchdown receiving performance in 2011. Steve Smith accompanied fellow teammates Cam Newton and Ryan Kalil to the Pro Bowl as well.
Now we take a look at the present. Steve Smith is poised to return in 2012 in his old form. He has a quarterback who has the arm and ability to really make Smith excel in his final years of his career. However, the entire NFL is aware of Steve Smith now, and we will almost certainly see the double/triple coverages from the past few years that were meant to try and contain him. This is good, however, because the Panthers now possess a variety of other toys on offense, from the two headed-monster at running-back, to Greg Olsen, to the promising young corp that backs Smith up. It is going to be a fun battle at wide receiver, we will see who can capitalize on the one-on-one matchups that result from having Smith on the field.
Brandon LaFell. I would consider LaFell the opportunist for one reason, and that is that he was able to make the most of nearly every opportunity he got last year. He was the number 3 receiver behind Legedu Naanee for most of the 2011 season, but took over as the starter in the last 6 games of 2011. While 36 receptions, 613 yards, and 3 touchdowns isn't all that impressive on paper, most Panthers fans will remember that his catches came in clutch situations, and oftentimes on third down. 13 of his total receptions were receptions of over 20 yards. Brandon LaFell showed the ability to be a number two receiver, getting open downfield and making some beautiful catches.
LaFell looks poised to become the Panthers full time number two receiver in 2012, as the position is still there for the taking. However, he will have many talented young players to fight with for it. But I have full confidence that he will win the spot, after seeing the flashes of what he can be last season. I can't wait to see how he plays in 2012 now that he will have had a whole offseason to learn the new system. We could really see it clicking towards the end of the 2011 season, look for LaFell to come out strong in 2012.
David Gettis. The tale of Gettis is an interesting, albeit bumpy one. He came out strong and opened many eyes in 2011, with 37 receptions, 508 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Gettis was actually the first of the three rookie receivers on the roster to score a touchdown, and made some great plays for what was a dismal offense otherwise. Gettis lined up at the number one spot quite a few times, and showed flashes of what he could be. Gettis is a tall and deceptively fast receiver, who's knock coming out of college was that he was a track star who would need time to adjust. In many fans' eyes, Gettis was the favorite to win the number two receiver spot in 2012, until he suffered a season ending ACL tear in training camp. Gettis looks to return and compete for the number two, and even number three spot. One thing is certain however: I can't wait to see how Chud can work in this tall, fast deep threat for his strong armed quarterback!
Joe Adams and Kealoha Pilares. These two players were drafted for their value as kick/punt returners. Pilares made his mark last season as the kickoff return specialist, averaging 25.7 yards per return with a touchdown. Pilares also showed flashes in the preseason, catching a bubble screen and taking it to the house. Pilares will almost certainly make the roster simply because of his versatility. He was able to hit the seam and take the ball down the field. He is a fast and strong runner with the football, and will only improve after his first full offseason.
And then there was Adams. Adams was regarded as the most dynamic returner in the draft. Adams was known for a variety of spectacular returns in his college career, and is a threat to take the ball back any time he fields a punt, something the Panthers haven't had in quite some time. With this he is also guaranteed a roster spot, as both he and Pilares will come in and immediately help special teams, along with making the competition for the slot receiver a great battle over the course of the next season.
Plead the 6th
You might be noticing something here. There are already 5 receivers who will most likely make the final roster. That still leaves 9 more guys who will be at OTA's and other offseason activities. We have returning players like Seyi Ajirotutu, who showed some tremendous potential in San Diego, lighting up the waiver wire in fantasy football in 2010 when the Chargers receiving corp was nearly depleted. Ajirotutu also has value as a gunner on special teams, giving him a case to make the roster somewhere. Then there's Darwin Adams, who stuck around on the practice squad and played in two games for Carolina last season. Being a former undrafted free agent, he will have a leg up as he knows somewhat how things work around here. Then there's Chris Manno, who really is a curious case. He worked out with Cam Newton at IMG soon after the season ended, and the Panthers scooped him up. Sounds like there might be some chemistry there, and Manno will have some value on special teams as well.
And then there's Edwards. Edwards is quite possibly the most discussed topic of the entire offseason. Simply put, Edwards was a pick that many believe should have never happened. The Panthers traded away what ended up being the 33rd overall pick in the 2011 draft just to take Edwards in the 3rd round of 2010. Edwards was a project, he was never meant to come in and immediately contribute. Edwards is still going through the QB-WR transformation. However, Edwards was given a shot in 2011 as he fielded punts the majority of the season. However, with a dismal special teams, Edwards rarely got a chance to shine. Edwards now has to put up or shut up. He MUST make the roster as the 6th wide receiver, he no longer has any other options. He won't be taking punts or kicks (barring injury) and he won't be lining up as a quarterback in the Panthers offense. However, he will really need to tear it up in camp in order to get a roster spot. He will have to beat out guys like Ajirotutu, Manno, and Adams, and hope that none of the undrafted free agents end up being lightning in a bottle. And, as much as I hate to say it, this is an unlikely scenario.
The Panthers also have 5 undrafted free agents on the roster, who will all look for playing time. Hubert Anyiam, Brenton Bersin, Jared Green (son of Darrell Green), Wes Kemp, and Rico Wallace will all fight to try and find a home on the roster (most likely the practice squad). However, there could be some real talent here. Many of the undrafted free agents (and Chris Manno) will get a chance to show what they've got with a coaching staff that will give them every chance to try. The Panthers have never been scared to let young kids play who show promise (Thomas Keiser, Byron Bell). It seems like any past qualifications will be thrown out the window, and I can't wait to see who comes out on top in what will be a long, hard battle for roster spots among the receivers.
Projected Depth Chart:
WR1: Steve Smith, David Gettis, Kealoha Pilares
WR 2: Brandon LaFell, Joe Adams, Seyi Ajirotutu
However, Armanti Edwards or Chris Manno could very easily beat out Ajirotutu for that final slot.
So Panthers fans, what do you think? Who will make the final roster?