The first evidence of when your young wide receiver is a bust? When coaches start talking about what a great blocker you are. Well, that is precisely what Ron Rivera is doing. The second evidence that a young WR is a bust? When people claim that he is "underrated" and "a quiet contributer." Well that is what Cat Scratch Reader's own James Dator is doing. Look, Hines Ward was a great blocker. But he also had 1000 career catches, 12000+ career yards and 85 career TDs despite spending most of his career in a run-oriented offense and a good deal of it with no quarterback. The guy had over 200 catches in 2 seasons with Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox getting him the ball. Another guy who is a great run blocker? Julio Jones, who was on pace for 1900 yards before getting injured. Sorry, Rivera, but there is a difference between being a great run blocker in addition to being a great receiver and being a great run blocker and nothing else.
As far as Dator goes, he mentions how LaFell is on pace to get 704 yards. OK ... 704 yards on one hand, 1900 on another. And oh, we are supposed to talk about how LaFell is developing at the same rate as did Muhsin Muhammed and Steve Smith. Never mind that Muhammed and Smith came into the NFL long before the new rules on defense that make it much easier for WRs to get open and allow them to go over the middle without fear of getting their heads taken off. It is also ridiculous to talk about how LaFell is still developing when he is 26 years old. (And he turns 27 this year ... he should be in his prime, not trying to get to the next level.) When Steve Smith was 26, he had 103 catches for 1563 yards and 12 TDs. This was with DAN HENNING as offensive coordinator and Jake Delhomme as the starting QB. Oh yes, when Smith was 24, he had 1100 yards on 88 catches and 7 TDs in only 11 starts. When he was 23: 54 catches for 872 yards. Sorry, but that isn't an underrated quiet contributor.
But what about the Muhsin Muhammed comparison? Well look at LaFell's stats and look at Muhammed's. And please realize that LaFell was 6 months older than was Muhammed when they entered the NFL. In any case, by his 3rd season, Muhammed had almost 950 receiving yards. So how is LaFell being on pace for 700 receiving yards in his 4th year make him similar to Muhammed in his development? By the way: Muhammed had his very strong 3rd season with Steve Beuerlein and Kerry Collins throwing the ball and as the #2 option to a more productive Rocket Ismail, plus with a TE having a Pro Bowl season in Wesley Walls. The Panthers had other options to go with the football - which cannot be said for this team, more on that later - but Muhammed got all those touches anyway because by then he was already the superior NFL WR that LaFell still is not.
Another thing: the 220 yards. Whoopee! Too bad that 35% of those - 79 of the 220 - came on one play in a 35-10 blowout. A play that was the result of a mistake by the defense as opposed to being a great play by LaFell. And he has 3 TDs. Outstanding! But all 3 came in blowouts against the Giants and the Vikings and when the Panthers were already up by double digits. Take away all 3 TDs and the Panthers still win both those games easily. So let's talk about the close games that the Panthers lost. Where was LaFell against Seattle? Held without a catch. Where was he against Buffalo? 4 catches for 13 yards, with 12 of those on 1 play. Against Arizona? 4 catches for 47 yards, which looks OK until you realize that he was targeted 9 times and that he dropped a pass on 4th and 1 in the red zone. Add it all up and it is the same pattern: he can make plays of easy and moderate difficulty but cannot in any sense "beat a defense" or "be a weapon."
Which is why the claim that he just needs more balls thrown his way is ridiculous. First off, he is actually targeted quite a bit without making the catch or with Newton having to abandon him and do something else with the football. Second, LaFell needs to be able to get separation downfield consistently, make tough catches in traffic, make plays on the ball while it is in the air and win battles for the ball with DBs to MERIT more balls being thrown his way. Can anyone remember the last time LaFell did these things? Well OK, what about the last time before that?
Also, LaFell's ineffectiveness is the very reason why there are fewer balls, not just for him but EVERYONE. It is because LaFell is a starting WR that the Panthers have 33 rushing attempts per game, 4th in the NFL. Who is #1? Buffalo, with a mess of a QB situation. (By the way, the Panthers have a guy that the Bills CUT as their starting OG.) Who is #2? Seattle, with a much better OL. Who is #3? Philadelphia, with a much better OL and a fast paced, college style option heavy offense. And #5? San Fran, with a much better OL. For the Panthers to run so much when their OL is so bad AND 2 of their top 4 RBs are injured makes no sense. But they do it because they have no choice: they know that throwing the ball more won't work. And Brandon LaFell at WR is one of the main reasons why the passing game doesn't work. LaFell is a backup possession WR, nothing more, and his being in the starting lineup hurts the team.
Moreover, the Panthers - especially Gettleman - WANT to see Newton throw the ball more to see if he is a franchise QB capable of giving them a shot to win the Super Bowl before they give him a contract extension, ideally after this season but definitely by the end of next season, but they can't because the starting WRs - aging Steve Smith and ineffective LaFell - are liabilities to the offense.
Please, don't be deceived by LaFell's "OK" stats. He is a starting WR in a 3 WR rotation (seriously ... Smith, LaFell, Ginn and Hixon are the only WRs with catches and Hixon only has 1 catch) and a 4 pass catcher rotation overall (Olsen is the only TE with a catch). He is going to get opportunities and catches simply because the Panthers are an NFL team, not the Oklahoma Sooners running the wishbone in the 1970s, which means that they are going to have to throw the ball at some point, which translates into someone is going to have to catch them. So, having 700 receiving yards in Carolina is not the equal of getting the same in, say, Green Bay, New England or New Orleans, where there are 6-8 pass catcher rotations including 4 or 5 WRs. Another thing: defenses are primarily concerned with stopping Carolina's running game, which includes having to spy or scheme Cam Newton. Put LaFell in a situation where Williams and Tolbert aren't on pace to have 1500+ rushing yards and you have a dropback passer at QB and how does LaFell get open? If you have safeties dropping into coverage and eyeing LaFell instead of peeking in the backfield to make sure that Williams doesn't break a long run and to keep Newton from turning the corner, how does he make plays?
LaFell can get the "low hanging fruit" when defenses are primarily concerned with defending other guys and can make plays in easy victories and blowout losses but is seldom - or ever - a difference maker in close games when someone needs to step up to make critical third down catches, move the ball and fight for position in the red zone. So, LaFell isn't the only reason why the Panthers have a terrible record in games decided by a TD or less (including 0-2 this season) but you had better believe that he is part of the reason. And as LaFell is in his 4th season, a contract year, and less than 3 weeks before his 27th birthday, there is no reason to believe that he is going to get better, for the light bulb to turn on, to take that next step.
I would be extremely happy if this were not the case. I saw LaFell play at LSU where he was an almost dominant player being held back only by terrible coaching and bad QBs. I was certain that he would be a Pro Bowl WR in the NFL despite his lack of top-end speed; an Anquan Boldin type player. "Cam Newton and Brandon LaFell are going to be a Pro Bowl combo that will put up big numbers together for years" I thought. Instead, I am only mystified at how a guy who was able to always get open pretty much on his own without the benefit of a coherent scheme or discernible game plan and pluck wobbly wounded ducks thrown nowhere near him away from the future NFL DBs in the SEC that were often draped all over him can't get open in situations where far less naturally talented WRs often thrive and can't haul in accurately delivered tight spirals.
It is a mystery, but one that the Panthers should invest no more time trying to solve. The rest of this season, Ted Ginn, Jr. should get more of the opportunities that LaFell is wasting. Next season, the Panthers should make getting 2 starting WRs their #2 priority (addressing both OT spots regrettably has to be first, especially since the OGs are no great shakes either, and the Panthers have so much invested in Williams and Stewart).
The Grantland piece that I linked to stated "LaFell would be a fifth wideout on some teams." Meaning that he would be a 4th WR, or as I called him a backup possession WR (he doesn't have skills to play the slot) on the others. I don't agree with everything in that Grantland piece, as it claims that Ted Ginn wouldn't get offensive snaps for most teams and makes the bizarre claim that a guy in his 4th season that has appeared in 49 games is merely "raw" as opposed to simply not being good. He also places a ton of emphasis on coaching while ignoring that the Panthers have a 3rd year UDFA at RT and waiver wire castoffs at both OG spots. However, he does agree with my assessment of Greg Olsen: "... is a competent starter ... but everyone here is stretched into a role they're not good enough to handle ...would be an excellent safety valve and occasional seam-splitter, but here he has to do his bad impression of Owen Daniels." So please consider his statement "LaFell would be a fifth wideout on some teams" when Rivera gives him the (backhanded) compliment of being a great blocker and when others attempt to pass him off as a quiet key to the offense whose developmental trajectory is similar to that of WRs who are actually capable NFL players, let alone Pro Bowlers and stars.
Bottom line: LaFell is not a good starting NFL WR. Saying otherwise - no matter how repeatedly, earnestly and hopefully it is said - simply will not make it so.