Statistics: 64 receptions, 745 yards, 4 TDs
It's going to be a very sad day when Steve Smith retires. He's been a huge contributor for a little over a decade, logging seven 1,000 yard seasons in his illustrious 13 year career. He's been to many Pro Bowls, and is easily the greatest receiver in Panthers history. However, Steve Smith's career is officially on the decline. His career was resurrected by the arrival of Cam Newton in 2011, but Steve Smith's stats have trended downward since that year. Steve Smith's 745 yards and 4 TDs are still decent numbers, but he can no longer be relied upon to be the number one receiving threat. He's got to have someone else on the other side to draw coverage, he needs to have a player who is SCARIER than he is catching the ball.
Steve Smith was still a huge contributor as stated above. He made many clutch catches on 3rd and 4th down this year, he was able to get open when Cam needed him, and he brought veteran leadership to this roster. His presence is felt on and off the field. He helped rally the troops after a poor start, and displayed confidence even after a loss against Seattle to kick off the season, predicting a game against them deep in January. And the crazy part is that almost came to fruition. His presence can only help this Panthers team, whether he's the number one or simply a rotational guy in 2014. We still need you Smitty.
Statistics: 49 receptions, 627 yards, 5 TDs
Brandon LaFell is a bit of a polarizing player. He flashes the ability to get open and make some spectacular catches, along with the ability to block extremely well. But then he'll drop a wide open ball on third down or fail to get open against single coverage. This was the season where LaFell could have really proved himself as a long term option, as Steve Smith's effectiveness has dwindled and forced LaFell into a position to step up (especially when Smith went down injured). He did set career highs in receptions and TDs in 2013, but the statistics and production simply won't cut it for a guy in LaFell's position. At this point in Smith's career, the player opposite him should be AT LEAST matching his production, better yet outproduce him. LaFell's entering the prime of his career and he needs to be more reliable down the stretch in order to maintain his position at the top of the depth chart. It remains to be seen whether LaFell even returns next year, but regardless of where he is he has some work to do. I personally believe he CAN be a starting wide receiver, but he's got a ways to go.
Statistics: 36 receptions, 556 yards, 5 TDs
Ted Ginn was an absolutely fantastic pickup for the Carolina Panthers. He became part of an intense battle for the third wide receiver position, as most of us fans didn't have him pegged as the guy to win the job over guys like Domenik Hixon and Armanti Edwards. But needless to say he won the job and took off with it. Ginn was a spark plug for this offense, setting a career high in yards per catch at 15.4. He became quite a deep threat for Cam Newton and the Panthers, and also a very dangerous player with the ball in space. But a lot of this we already knew, or at least we knew he had the skill set to succeed at. The most impressive and equally surprising step forward that he took was Ginn's development as a route runner. Ginn showed an impressive initial drive on stop routes, and did a great job of using his head and arms to avoid a "tell" of what route he'd be running. He even burned Darrelle Revis on a "stop n go" route designed to take advantage of his speed. Ginn also provided value as a kick and punt returner, routinely getting his offense into better field position.
Ginn impressed, but he's definitely not the receiver you want as a number one or number two. Regardless of his high draft position, a number three-four wide receiver is a good fit for him. He provides a great threat with the ball in his hands and he can blow the top off the defense. Ginn still has some time to hone his technique as well, but don't be shocked if he's not the starter next year, even if LaFell and Hixon don't make it back. I fully expect Carolina to resign him, as his contributions were a huge factor to offensive success and he showed he can step up when a play is needed.
Statistics: 7 receptions, 55 yards, 1 TD
Many of us (myself included) expected Hixon to win the third receiver position early on in the 2012-13 offseason. It made sense, a veteran wide receiver not named Steve Smith who had played many games at that position in this league. His connection with Gettleman from the Giants made it seem as if he was handpicked for the job. Fortunately, we were wrong as Ted Ginn provided the biggest explosion and most upside at the position. Hixon rarely saw the field for the entire regular season, save for the last few games. But when he was given his opportunity, he made the most of it. Hixon made probably the biggest catch of the season and possibly career, as he caught the game winner with under a minute left to clinch the division against the Saints, whom the Panthers were trailing all year in divisional play. Sadly, he couldn't contribute much in the last two games (playoffs included) of the season with Steve Smith hobbled and the Panthers offense looking for an answer.
In retrospect, the fourth wide receiver position made the most sense for Hixon. We really didn't need him on the field much, but he provided valuable depth and stepped up when we needed him most. He was a low risk signing that added a veteran presence to a young team. I doubt he will return next season, but I believe his catch against New Orleans earned him his contract.
Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt
Statistics: None recorded, McNutt played in one game this season, King zero
Neither one of these guys really saw action this season. McNutt almost caught a touchdown pass against Atlanta, but both are young wide receivers with pretty good size. Here's to hoping Ricky Proehl and Steve Smith can mold them into something for us!
In summary, Carolina's receiving core was probably it's weakest collective offensive unit this season. Steve Smith will always be Smitty, but he's taken a step back. This receiving group could look very similar or extremely different next season. It all depends on what direction Dave Gettleman decides to go in both free agency and the draft. We may see a similar approach this season as Gettleman loaded one position and turned it into a strength. We may also see him roll with about the same group. It's very up in the air right now, though this group will not last very long regardless. The biggest key to a quarterback's success is surrounding him with weapons he trusts and an O-line that can protect him. We've been blessed here in Carolina with a huge armed quarterback who is equally as devastating running the ball. And the scary part is that Cam is only getting better. He's becoming more patient while also playing decisive football. He's THE guy right now. It's now the task of the GM to surround him with the tools to win. He already has a great defense to back him up, now he needs some toys to destroy opposing defenses.
This offseason should be one to remember Panthers fans, and we here at CSR will continue to give you our best coverage over the entire offseason. We appreciate all of you who have stayed with us, and we try our best every day to give you the best. Keep Pounding everybody!