Brandon LaFell has become quiet key to Panthers offense

Hannah Foslien

In the past it's been all about Steve Smith, but Carolina's other outside receiver holds the key to victory.

Brandon LaFell is a polarizing player who often spurs strong emotional reactions. For some he's a weak spot in the offense -- a player that can't be relied on as an every down threat. Others believe his career mirrors that of former Panther-great Muhsin Muhammad, the key is getting him the ball.

LaFell getting the ball has proven to be a necessity in securing wins. Since pairing with Cam Newton in 2011 the Panthers are 7-6 when he gains over 50 yards receiving, including 2-0 in 2013. A win record of .538 is nothing to write home about, but is notable when talking about a .400 team record since Ron Rivera became head coach.

Sunday's 107 yard game against the Minnesota Vikings was significant for LaFell, as it brought his season total to 220 yards -- on pace for 704 this season, which would be the highest of his career. More importantly he's catching touchdowns. His three in 2013 translate to 10 on the season. If this pace keeps up he'll have the most receiving touchdowns by a member of the Panthers since Steve Smith in 2005.

Small sample size definitely hurts when looking at this season, but it's important to realize that he does have an impact. This season more than ever we've seen LaFell show his underrated speed, which has been paired with Ted Ginn to great effect.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison is that of LaFell to Smith. In 2013 Smith has been targeted 15 more times and caught eight more passes -- but has just four more receiving yards than LaFell. He's also catching 55-percent of his targets to Smith's 54-percent, while dropping less passes.

There's no question the Panthers need to look for a young receiver to replace Smith down the line, but perhaps it's too early to overlook No.11, who has become a quiet key to the Panthers' success with Cam Newton.

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