The Panthers are a very talented young team, but are really lacking at certain positions. The right side of the offensive line can barely be a band-aid at times for Cam Newton, the secondary is suspect when the pass rush isn't there, and the Panthers could use some younger talent at other positions (tackle, safety, tight end, etc). But the key position of this write up is a position us Carolina fans have been talking about for years, the wide receiver position.
The wide receiver position was once a very strong unit, having players like Muhsin Muhammed, Ricky Proehl, and Steve Smith all on one roster. Now, only Steve Smith remains along with a crop of young talent and cast offs. Brandon LaFell has always been a good option, but he will not be the answer for us when Steve Smith inevitably retires. We also see the likes of Ted Ginn, someone many 49ers fans should be familiar with. Ginn came from the 49ers where he barely hit the field as a wide receiver, being almost exclusively a return man. Ginn was signed this past offseason by Carolina, and engaged in a heated battle for the 3rd wide receiver spot between himself, Domenik Hixon, Armanti Edwards, Kealoha Pilares, and many others. Ted Ginn took off with the opportunity and has locked down the position for himself. Ginn has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 season, making some plays in key situations and essentially being a spark plug in this offense. When he gets the ball in space, he's dangerous. But he's no replacement for Steve Smith, whose age has shown this season. He's still made unbelievable catches and typical "Smitty" plays, but he didn't come anywhere near 1,000 yards, and hasn't scored much. This leaves a gaping hole at a position that is critical to Cam Newton's long term success, bringing me to my choice for who I'd take if Carolina could have one player from the 49ers.
I truly envy the 49ers for their skill positions. They have Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham (whose injured), and were able to draft another promising young talent in Quinton Patton. They've surrounded Colin Kaepernick with a great deal of talent in the passing game that piggy backs a solid run game. And he has a wide receiver like Michael Crabtree to ease his development along. He's a great young talent whose shown progression every year of his career prior to 2013, where he is coming off an Achilles tear. In 2012, Crabtree has a breakout year, catching 85 passes for 1105 yards and 9 touchdowns, all career highs. We haven't seen that production in Carolina from anyone not named Steve Smith in a long, long time. He's shown progression throughout his career (625 yards in 2009, 741 in 2010, 874 in 2011, and 1105 in 2012).
Crabtree would be a lock as the number one receiver and allow Steve Smith to minimize his role a little bit. In addition, Cam has been known to throw a little high at times, but Crabtree has demonstrated good jump ball catching ability and hands. This would be the perfect kind of "go-to guy" for Cam Newton when he's struggling with consistency. In addition, having Crabtree would give Cam an upper echelon receiver to develop with and form long-term chemistry with. The closest kind of player we have like that is Brandon LaFell.
Some would argue that we could also use an offensive lineman, such as Mike Iupati or Anthony Davis. While this would sure up the right side of the Panthers' O-line, it would not solve the problem of finding a long term solution to Steve Smith. The Panthers pass offense has been anemic since Smith went down, mustering only 286 passing yards total in two games without him (this is subtracting the 44 yard reception from Cam's stats that Smith had prior to going down). While the Panthers managed to win those games, it's not a formula for continued success in this league. Eventually Cam will need to put up some points. And then comes my next point. Michael Crabtree has been a huge part of Kaepernick's success in his near two years as a starter. To put it into perspective, Colin Kaepernick only broke 200 yards passing twice in Crabtree's 12 game absence as a starter. After Crabtree's return, Kaepernick broke that mark 4 times in the 6 games he's been back (including 221 yards in the 9ers first playoff game in Green Bay). Edit: I'm not sure where I got 400 yards from.
Crabtree would be a huge addition to this team. He shows up in the big games, and possesses the ideal skill set and body type to be an elite receiver. And he's still getting better. Once he's fully recovered from the Achilles, I expect him to be a huge threat every season. I could have picked offensive line, Vernon Davis, or one of the 49ers many talented defenders. But I'm a sucker for the skill positions. Good luck to the 49ers, and hopefully the Panthers secondary can contain this talented young player while I fantasize about not having to worry about Steve Smith's health all the time.