Is Brandon LaFell the future #1, or just a career #2?
With another season in the books and another draft come and gone with no first round receivers added, I wanted to take a look at one of our current young receivers: Mr. Brandon LaFell. Generally getting no love on the national stage and mixed feelings here on CSR, I simply wanted to see how he stacks up against the other #2 receivers in the league. Gettlemen has stated that the answer is sometimes on the roster, and for a future #1 no one is closer than Brandon LaFell at this point. Let's put Mr. Gettlemen's statement to the test.
First, let me be up front in telling you that I am a LaFell fan. He’s not one of my favorite players but I find that he is certainly reliable, appearing to make tough grabs in critical situations more often than not. With this said, that is all just my perception. While we all look at players using the eye test we shouldn’t ignore the numbers, and that’s what I’m attempting to use here to validate LaFell’s position as the #2 receiver of the Carolina Panthers. My expectations before beginning this process were that LaFell was a solid #2 last year, and I believe that this statistical evaluation has proven that theory to be correct. Please read on, and you can judge for yourself.
In evaluating LaFell, I chose not to compare him to #1 wide receivers. He just isn’t there yet, and who knows if he will ever establish himself as a true #1. He does have the tools to possibly become a future #1 but he still has to take a relatively large step in my opinion. Maybe this will be the year with his and Cam’s continued development…but that remains to be seen.
In determining who the #2 wide receivers for each team were, I simply used receiving yards as my sorting metric. I did not count any tight ends in the evaluation, regardless of yards, because they play a different position. If I were to use receiving tight ends then we would have to compare LaFell to the league’s #3 receivers…because our own Greg Olsen was #2 in receiving yards for the Panthers last year. With more time, I would consider looking at LaFell’s numbers when compared to #2 receivers who perform behind top TE receiving threats, but for this exercise we’ll just take out the TE altogether.
All of the data on receivers came from the NFL.com database and from Football Outsiders, and the rankings are my own work in comparing LaFell to all #2 wide receivers. The results are as follows:
Receiving Yards: 18th
First Down %: 7th
Yards per Game: 17th
Average Yards per Catch: 7th
As you can see, LaFell is middling in receiving yards, TD’s, Yards/Game, and number of receptions when compared to other #2 wide receivers. He also ranks 7th in both first down % and average yards per catch when compared to other #2 wide receivers, so he does prove to be a reliable weapon.
Another metric, not listed above, is the Catch Rate Percentage. LaFell had a Catch Rate last year of 58%, which was good for #1 on the team. Overall, the Panthers had a relatively low catch rate percentage amongst their wide receivers, which could be attributed to errant throws by Cam. By comparison, Steve Smith had a 52% Catch Rate, with substantially more targets. As Cam’s passes become more consistently accurate, especially on the short and intermediate routes, I expect these numbers to improve across the board.
Maybe this will give us all a little more insight as to how LaFell is actually performing when compared to the rest of the league’s #2 wide receivers. He should be considered a solid #2, but not a top flight #2 (a la Julio Jones). Even with Olsen putting up excellent numbers ahead of him, I would still like to see LaFell take that next step this year towards becoming either a top #2, or solidifying his bid as a future #1.
As has been pointed out on multiple occasions throughout this blog, the Panthers will need to find the future #1 soon. Perhaps they are waiting to see if LaFell transforms into that guy, but they cannot afford to wait one more year after this one. Rest assured that if LaFell’s performance is similar this year to last year, the Panthers will not put off this need for another season. If they do…scary times my friends.
For the short term (ie. this season), the idea that we have no weapons with Smitty, Olsen, and Lafell as our 1, 2, and 3, respectively, seems a little out of place to me. Those guys all fall into the top 50 receiving threats in the league from a production standpoint. Add Hixon to the fold and it’s not at all a bad group. Consider that Barner could be an excellent receiving wrinkle if he pans out, and all of a sudden we look dangerous. The big uncertainty moving forward, again, is that future #1. If we can fill that need then the rest of the group could be solid for years to come.
Hopefully LaFell will take another step up, and one of the younger guys will emerge as an additional threat this year. With that said, we’ve hoped for the same in the past and have had mixed results at best. There comes a point when this may bite the Panthers in the rear, but for now this group will work. This season at least I expect our crop of receivers to be effective enough to win some football games.
So, what do you think Panther’s fans? Is LaFell ready to take that next step, or is he going to be a middle of the road #2 again this year?