January of 2011 was arguably the scariest time for fans in the history of the Carolina Panthers organization. A perfect storm had brewed, the confluence of which resulted in a 2-14 season, no head coach, the sure-fire QB returning to school, numerous vital free agents in flux, and star WR Steve Smith asking for a trade.
Eighteen months later hope springs eternal, and the optimism surrounding the organization is as high as it has ever been; but it's easy to forget just how ugly things were. During this time the Panthers made one quick hiring, and initially it was easy to dismiss the addition of wide receiver coach Fred Graves as little more than placating Smitty, and hoping he would stay.
The addition of Graves has been far more than superficial placation, and now he's been given the ultimate seal of approval from the front office-not adding veteran talent. The public face of this decision is a vote of confidence in players like Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, but it's also a move that puts faith in Graves' ability as a developer of talent.
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"Armed with a reputation as a stickler for precision, Fred Graves is challenged with developing one of the NFL's youngest receiving corps"
The Tennessee Titans under Jeff Fisher never put a premium on the receiver position, and as such Graves often had to work with average talent, and get above-average results. Yes, Kenny Britt was a high draft pick, but it was the work he did with players like Nate Washington that showed his ability as a developer of talent.
Thankfully, we saw the same progression here in less than a year. Brandon LaFell didn't magically develop better hands, but rather if you watch him play you see his body control being far better than his first season, and his route running has progressed greatly. This is surely in part to renewed effort and dedication, but it's also a product of Graves being harder on his receivers.
Entering his second full season with the team it's now incumbent upon Graves to turn his hand to developing David Gettis and Kealoha Pilares, who are both effectively entering their second season also. In the case of Pilares many are quick to add him to the roster bubble, but in a casual fantasy football conversation with the NFL Network- Steve Smith said that Pilares is a ‘fantasy sleeper' for 2012. While this doesn't mean a lot in and of itself, this does speak volumes to how the veteran regards the 2nd year wideout, and could be giving us a glimpse that we could see Pilares featured more in the offense in 2012.
It's easy to get caught up in the past by over-valuing past NFL talent, but the Panthers are looking forward. For all the players are doing to improve it's easy to overlook the architect behind their development. To this end the Fred Graves is as important to the organization as any coach they have, albeit he's often overlooked.