I Will Now Recant My Brandon LaFell Bashing: What The Panthers Should Do At WR

I won't take it all back, because most of it was true when I said - er, wrote - it. But I did state in a couple of comments in a couple of fanpost threads that I will acknowledge that Brandon LaFell is a productive, improving player if LaFell made plays that mattered in games that mattered.

And he has done just that. I maintain my belief that the margin of error for the Panthers is very small and that every win counts (or at least it will until the Panthers reach 11 wins or some combination of Arizona/Philadelphia/Chicago reaches 7 losses). So, LaFell scoring the initial TDs against New England and Tampa Bay were huge. Especially since the Panthers barely beat New England and though the Tampa Bay game turned out to be a blowout, it is easy to see how it might have been a close game with so many key players banged up/out of action.

Another thing: LaFell has surpassed his career high in receiving TDs with 5. He is also tied for the team lead in TD catches with Greg Olsen. Further still: the only Panther with more TDs than LaFell is Cam Newton, with 6 rushing. (Yes, the Panthers obviously need more offensive talent, but getting it would make LaFell more productive also.)

Another thing still: if LaFell keeps up his current pace, he will finish at about 725 yards and 6 TDs. Not great, but almost average for a starting NFL #2 WR. More important, it represents a decided improvement in production (meaning that he is getting better, an idea that I denied). Further context still: LaFell's production has improved despite declining production in the passing game overall (except for TDs and completion percentage where Newton should set career bests in both). The Panthers are averaging 218 passing yards per game, good for 28th in the NFL, where the previous 2 seasons Newton averaged 253 and 241 per game respectively. So though there has only been a slight increase in LaFell's yards per game (42 to 44) his percentage of Newton's passing yards has increased from 17% to 20%. Basically, if Newton were slinging it like he did during his first 2 seasons, LaFell would be right at 800 receiving yards, where "average" for a #2 receiver is 850. Again, not great but almost average.

It is further fair to propose that LaFell would benefit from better talent around him on offense. Were the Panthers to - for example - fix the right side of their offensive line to give Newton an extra 1/4 to 1/2 second to throw the ball and get Panthers' rushers other than Newton to 5 yards per carry (currently Williams has 4 ypc, Tolbert 3.9 ypc, Stewart 3.5 ypc) it would help LaFell's cause. So would getting a #1 WR on the other side of LaFell. Steve Smith is no longer a #1 WR and needs to move to the slot where he would be a lot more consistent than Ted Ginn, Jr.

So, where before I opposed bringing LaFell back as anything other than a minimum salary reserve #4 WR, I say that Gettleman should go ahead and sign him to a 2-3 year deal for about $3-$4 million a year to be the starting possession WR. Acquire a #1 WR from free agency, though not for the ridiculous amount of money that is being paid for the Mike Wallace types. (Use the #1 pick to get a RT and the #2 pick on a CB. Get a WR or a TE in the 3rd round.) What happens to Ted Ginn, Jr. in this scenario? Well Ginn hasn't done a whole lot in the slot: 29 catches for 469 yards. He is pretty much what Miami and San Fran thought of him when both franchises decided that they could do better. But Ginn is relatively young (will be 29 next season), cheap and therefore worth re-signing at or slightly above the minimum contract to be a veteran return man and to back up both Smith in the slot and the #1 WR to be named later.

Hopefully Smith will be willing to redo his deal to reduce the $17 million in cap space - and $15 million in dead money - that he is scheduled to take up the next 2 seasons. He has to know that he IS NOT going to get the $16 million that is coming to him in 2015 and 2016 when he will be 36 and 37 years old. (Exhibit 1000 of why Marty Hurney is no longer running this team: that contract.) But if he were to redo the deal to reduce his cap figure, he could recoup some of that cap money while helping the team make a run in what will be his last 1-2 years in the NFL.

Holding onto LaFell as the #2 WR and Smith as the slot WR will only work if the Panthers are able to free up enough money to go after a #1 WR (not a franchise WR, just a deep threat capable of starting) in free agency, and Smith cutting his cap figure in half is the way to go about and do that. If that happens, the Panthers will be able to focus on their OL and secondary in the draft.

So, about LaFell, the majority opinion on the board was right and I was wrong. He is a good player and should have a future as a starter in Carolina. But PLEASE just leave it and that, with no comparisons to Muhsin Muhammed, who was a Pro Bowl player held back only by injuries and the QB situation. Were Muhammed as healthy as LaFell and had Cam Newton throwing him the ball, as well as under the current rules that allow guys to get off the line of scrimmage unchallenged and go over the middle without fear of getting your head taken off ... again, no Moose comparisons. But LaFell is a good WR who is getting better, and that is good enough.

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