As it stands, the Panthers are currently carrying 13 wide receivers. In 2012, the Panthers retained 6 wide receivers (Kealoha Pilares went to Injured/Reserve while David Gettis stepped onto the active roster after being on the Physically Unable to Perform list for most of the year).
We should expect more of the same from 2013, and those last few spots could see some intense competition between the remaining young receivers on the current roster. The Panthers also retained Lamont Bryant from the Practice Squad, so we may not see some of the receivers cut outright. Let's take a look at where some of these guys will fit in.
Steve Smith is an instant lock to make the final roster. We have seen a resurgence from Smith, after two down years marred by injury prior to the "Cam Newton era". Now, Smith is heading in with 2,568 yards and 11 touchdowns, accounting for a whopping 32.4% of Cam Newton's career passing yard totals and over a quarter of his passing touchdowns. Not much really needs to be said here. If Steve Smith is cut, you should probably kiss your wife and children and hold them tight, because the sky is probably falling outside.
Probability to start: 150%
The next obvious lock to make the roster is Brandon LaFell. LaFell started 12 of 14 games last season (he missed Washington and the second Atlanta game due to injury). LaFell's season can be described as hit and miss at times. He started the season well for a number two, logging 9 receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown. He then faded away, only catching one ball for 27 yards against New York and Atlanta. LaFell would go on to average about 3.7 catches per game for 56 yards per game, logging four receiving touchdowns. The story of the wide receivers from 2012 was the noticeable drop off in touchdowns. Steve Smith only caught 4 after 7 the previous year, all of which came towards the second half of the year after Smith was blanked for 8 games from the red zone. LaFell scored 4 as well, though he had opportunity to score many more. DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON LOUIS MURPHY.
Probability to start: 95%
Domenik Hixon is the latest addition in the revolving door of slot/number 3 receivers for the Carolina Panthers. Hixon played in 13 games logging 3 starts in 2012, following two seasons where he'd make his way to IR. Hixon was a nice option for the New York Giants who needed to find a replacement for Hakeem Nicks during his injury period. Nicks started two straight games in place of Nicks, logging 11 receptions for 169 yards. Hixon would close out the season with 39 receptions for 567 yards and two touchdowns, his best season since 2008.
Many people remember Hixon's kick and punt return talents, but most likely with Joe Adams, Armanti Edwards, Kealoha Pilares, and the recent addition of Ted Ginn would indicate that Hixon will step in as strictly a receiver for the Carolina Panthers. His chances of being the number 3 for us are high, but there will be plenty of other receivers fighting for playing time.
Probability to start: 15% Probability to make roster: 75%
Ginn has made his mark as a return ace after a disappointing three seasons in Miami. The former first round pick never really panned out to be the receiver that warrants a high selection. However, one team's trash is another one's treasure. Ginn's scored 6 times over his career as a returner, and possesses ideal speed and quickness for an offensive weapon, when used wisely. Ginn's made a few catches and scored here and there, but was purely a situational receiver at best. Still, a quarterback can never have too many weapons. Ginn is the most proven returner on the roster, and that may very well secure his spot. But he will need to fight it out with Adams, Pilares, and Edwards, who all have shown versatility. Still, Ginn's return strengths are nothing to shake a stick at, and may also find his way onto the field in much the same way Pilares did prior to his injury.
Probability to start at receiver: 0% Probability to start at returner: 75% Probability to make roster: 50%
Pilares looked to be something special for the Carolina Panthers at the start of 2012. Us fans saw him moving in to different packages, work in the slot, even take some Wildcat type snaps. We all remember him snapping the drought of kickoff return touchdowns in 2011. However, his season was cut short with a trip to IR, so we have yet to see the depths of the plays built for him. Pilares can be very dangerous with the ball in his hands, and is comparable in build to Steve Smith. Again however, the addition of Ginn and the existing competition at the returner spot could pose a problem for Pilares. But he has proven to be an option on special teams, and could find his way onto the roster due to versatility. He scored his first career receiving touchdown against Atlanta on a 36 yard scamper, and we saw how dangerous he can be in the preseason.
Probability to start at receiver: 15% Probability to start at returner: 25% Probability to make roster: 50%
Adams didn't get to see the field much his rookie year due to being struck with a case of fumble-itis. His return averages were sound, averaging 11.5 yards on punts and 23.1 yards on kicks. But he fumbled four times out of 20 total touches on special teams. The one thing you learn playing football is the coach would rather put someone in who will consistently hold on to the ball and see a slight dip in production than take a chance and give a guy the ball who possesses some good return ability but can't hold onto it. Steve Mariucci would have a field day with this kid.
The other problem here other than the returner competition is how crowded the receiving depth chart is currently. Listed above are five receivers who possess more upside than Adams currently, and its a "what have you done for me lately" league. On top of that, Marty Hurney is no longer the GM. Dave Gettleman doesn't owe anything to any player on this roster (except maybe his own draft choices). He doesn't need to keep Adams or Edwards around unless he's sure they can contribute more to the team than the other 7 receivers vying for that last one (maybe two, but the Practice Squad is open for some of the UFA's and returning Practice Squad eligible players) spot. Gettleman cutting them isn't an admission of a faulty draft choice, its simply finding the best 6 receivers he can.
Probability to start at returner: 25% Probability to make roster: 35%
Edwards played in all 16 games last season, but never started. He caught 5 passes for 121 yards, including an 82 yard bomb resulting from blown coverage. Edwards averaged 21.7 yards on kickoffs, but didn't get to see the ball much on punt returns. Edwards did however take one of those two returns 69 yards in 2012, and didn't have the fumble problems that Adams had.
Edwards is in much the same boat as Adams. Edwards is now trying to earn a spot on the new regime. The Hurney experiment is over, and now its time for Edwards to prove himself. But considering the presence of three other return threats on the roster, its unlikely Edwards would do anything other than rotate in to return punts and kickoffs when needed. So Edwards is going to need to show his receiving talents if he hopes to make the roster as a fourth or fifth receiver, and the future doesn't look bright. One thing is certain, this is likely Edwards' last chance. On the plus side, he hasn't had as many problems fumbling as Adams, that could be a big difference maker.
Probability to start at returner: 25% Probability to make roster: 30%
David Gettis is an interesting story. He was one of the few bright spots of the Panthers' dreadful 2010 season, logging 37 receptions for 508 yards and 3 touchdowns. For a 6th round rookie, that's outstanding. Some fans even believed that Gettis would supplant LaFell and start over him. However, Gettis would fall victim to injury, and spent all of 2011 on IR and most of 2012 on the PUP list. He returned for two games, but failed to log any statistics. Gettis possesses ideal size and speed for a receiver, and showed in his only season of healthy play that he could be a difference maker. Gettis could potentially be one of the few who could step in and produce in the event of an injury. But can he be the same receiver who stepped onto the field in 2010? Or will he be yet another casualty of injuries? Doesn't seem like Rivera wants to count him out just yet.
Probability to make roster: 30%
The Rest of the Bunch
Lamont Bryant is probably the most intriguing prospect of the group of practice squad/UFA players left. Bryant spent the entire season on the practice squad, and is therefore still eligible to make the practice squad again. His 6-5, 225 pound build along with his speed gives him the edge of being the picture of an NFL receiver. You also might remember a few of his great catches in training camp and the preseason of 2012. Bryant was one of the few who wasn't cut outright last season, and there's a division of the CSR readerbase who thinks he could be something special. Most likely we will see him on the practice squad again, with possible opportunities to step in during the season.
Brenton Bersin is a name you might recognize. The former Wofford Terrier was signed as an UFA last season before being waived in the preseason. No teams gave him another shot, so here he is back in Carolina again. He could possibly make the practice squad, Jared Green beat him to it last season but Green is no longer with the team.
Taulib Ikharo and RJ Webb were both signed by Carolina after being out of football altogether since college for a few years. Both were signed from tryouts. James Shaw is also in the same boat, being signed shortly after the season ended.