Carolina Panthers Monday Morning Optimist: Brandon LaFell Edition

Brandon LaFell excelled as a receiver, and a blocker in limited time in 2011. With 2012 looming he'll finally get a chance to start full-time. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Happy Monday Panther faithful. I'm here to give you a healthy dose of Monday morning optimism leading up to training camp, as each week I'll look at one of the elements to the 2012 season you said you were looking forward to, and giving you some reasons why you should be excited.

Kicking things off we have the man who looks to be Rob Chudzinski's choice for #2 receiver across from Steve Smith. During the 2011 season Brandon LaFell made huge strides as he moved from a rarely used third option, to a featured part of the offense. It's too easy to look at his lackluster 268 yards in 6 starts and dismiss LaFell, but numbers in isolation are always a dangerous thing. Statistically these were Cam Newton's six worst starts at QB-- games where you could see a long NFL season were starting to wear down the young QB, and we also saw Cam battle a shoulder injury during this period. During this stretch Steve Smith amassed 402 yards, so for the 2nd year LaFell to have 268 put him right where he should be as a #2 receiver.

Still doubting whether LaFell can do it? Confused why the Panthers have more faith in him than available, proven players like Plaxico Burress and Chad Ochocinco? After the jump I have some numbers that will surprise you.

As they do each year the folks over at Football Outsiders gave their rankings for all the NFL's WRs in 2011, and Brandon LaFell stood tall amongst some fabulous competition.

Warning: Crazy stats coming up...

DYAR is 'Defense-adjusted yards above replacement'. It's a metric that FO uses that basically looks at a receiver's value to his team on plays where he catches the ball, and compares him to other players on his team. From there it is adjusted for how good the defense he played was. This ensures an 85 yard reception against New England doesn't mean the same as an 85 yard reception against Houston for example.

Brandon LaFell's DYAR value was 148, good for 32nd in the entire NFL. That means LaFell was more valuable to the Panthers than at least one team's #1 receiver, and was far and away more valuable than most team's #2 receivers.

Yes, the kicker here is that the Panthers didn't really have anyone else. It's not exactly difficult to outplay Legedu Naanee. However, Football Outsiders go a step further with their famous DVOA rating.

DVOA, or Defense-adjusted value over average takes the basic concept behind the DYAR, and moves it out to the entire NFL. Take the average of how well all receivers did against the Panthers' competition in 2011 on every single snap, and match LaFell up against it-- how well does he do?

In the DVOA rankings Brandon LaFell measured an impressive 23.2% better than the average receiver against these same defenses. That's good enough for 11th... in the entire NFL. Yes, according to these numbers only ten WRs in the entire league did better against their opponents that Brandon Lafell. These receivers were:

Jordy Nelson, Malcolm Floyd, Laurent Robinson, James Jones, Marques Colston, Victor Cruz, Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace, Robert Meachem, and Lance Moore.

DVOA doesn't care about yards, or touchdowns. It simply measures how much of an impact a player had on every down, and how good they were compared to players in a similar position.

These aren't the only reasons you should be excited about Brandon LaFell in 2012. One of the areas we saw him make huge strides last season was in his hands. Once regarded as a stone-handed player who was prone to the dropsies we saw LaFell make huge strides, and become one of the Panthers most sure-handed receivers.

This is illustrated by LaFell's catch rate of 64% on the season, which sounds poor, but this takes into account all targets thrown to the player. That rating of 64% is better than Calvin Johnson (61%), Mike Wallace (63%), and Larry Fitzgerald (52%). Obviously LaFell was used less, but this helps show that while he may not get huge amounts of separation, it's enough for Newton to use LaFell effectively in the passing game.

If Football Outsiders can see these numbers, so can the Carolina Panthers. If you're looking for a reason why the organization has so much faith in Brandon LaFell this is likely a huge reason. Is it time for him to rest on his laurels? Absolutely not. Do positive advanced metrics guarantee future success? No way; however, it's promising to look at his ability in limited time, and see that he was right up there with the NFL's best.

As the regular season draws closer we'll finally get a chance to see the former 3rd round pick get a full sixteen game slate as a starter. This will once and for all determine if LaFell is cut out to be the Panthers second receiver for the next decade, or whether the organization needs to look elsewhere. Either way, I can't wait to see what #11 will bring to the table in 2012.

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