Last week I took a look at the Panthers cornerback depth, which is a big time competition. But one of the biggest and most nationally recognized competitions in Panthers training camp, and the ramifications of this battle could make or break this offense. We've heard the same song and dance all offseason.
The Panthers cut Steve Smith.
The Panthers allowed Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell to walk.
The Panthers didn't bring in any "high value" free agents.
The Panthers only drafted one wide receiver.
While all of these things are valid (some more than others) points, Dave Gettleman did a great deal to address the position. While the Panthers failed to land big name targets like Golden Tate or Hakeem Nicks, the veterans they did bring in seem to have one thing in common;
A big problem with last year's receiving corp was frustrating drops and mental miscues, such as batting the ball up in the air or not looking a catch in before looking to pick up YAC. What we have here in 2014 really looks nice on paper. Jerricho Cotchery enjoyed a nice season in 2013, logging 10 touchdowns off of 46 receptions with Ben Roethlesberger at the helm. Say what you will about Big Ben, but he's arguably the first half competent quarterback that Cotchery has played with since the mid 2000s. While we likely won't see the 900 yard seasons Cotchery put up early in his career, he provides a nice redzone option, showing his veteran skills to get open and create space. Cotchery runs nice routes on tape and makes good possesion catches, where possesion was a big problem for the Panthers 2013 wideout class. The same can be said of Jason Avant, a long time Eagles wide receiver best known for moving the sticks. An eagles fan told me of the pickup "He'll get the first down for you, but don't expect much YAC".
Tiquan Underwood is a slightly different animal. While Underwood has never enjoyed a 1,000 yard season or a consistent spot as a starter, he does also bring a consistency of sorts to the roster. In his two seasons as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, where he finally got some decent snaps, Underwood averaged 17 yards per catch. That's a full 6 yards higher than Avant or Cotchery. While that may not seem like a huge number, it indicates that Underwood showed value as an intermediate-to-deep threat, something really none of the other free agent pickups can effectively bring to the table. The statement "Cam Newton made Ted Ginn a lot of money" has been thrown around a lot this offseason, we will see if he can do the same for Tiquan Underwood, who has only seen good playing time with a rookie quarterback and a Jaguars quarterback (I wouldn't count Tom Brady because Underwood only caught three balls from him in six games played).
The Panthers made the pick that many analysts wanted at 28, as they had their choice of two highly touted receivers with question marks in the 2014 NFL Draft. Kelvin Benjamin just seemed to have the biggest upside. As good ole Getts said, you can't teach 6'6", 240. Benjamin is the kind of redzone threat that the Panthers have lacked for years, and the kind of player we've banged the table for during that time (see Alshon Jeffrey, sorry BW).
While the needs are their on the offensive line and in the secondary, the national sentiment has been to surround your franchise quarterback with high power weapons to further their development. Kelvin Benjamin appears to be the first in what should be a series of picks in the future to build the fortress around our king. Benjamin shows excellent usage of his size on tape and during OTA's has shown he wants to work hard. Not just for him, but for his quarterback as well. The usage of Benjamin in 2014 will depend largely on how quickly he adjusts to the speed of the game and how quickly he can develop a rapport with his quarterback. We are certainly off to a good start.
The Other Guys
The Panthers retained Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt, and Kealoha Pilares from the 2013 receiving core. Tavarres King is a former 5th round pick who just couldn't stick in Denver with the big time threats they have their, he looks to find a place here in Carolina as Dave Gettleman hopes he's found the next Victor Cruz. Marvin McNutt is another guy Dave Gettleman is high on, though I don't expect them to be more than 4th and 5th receivers to kick off the 2014 season. Kealoha Pilares looks to prove he was worth the 5th round pick the old regime burned on him, and so far he hasn't shown enough to stick on what is becoming a loaded receiving group with proven options and high upside players. Brenton Bersin is an interesting prospect with nice size and two full offseasons of chances to make the roster. He hasn't gotten much chance to hit the game field, but there's a reason we keep bringing him back. We also have practice squad retainees Deandre Pressley and Toney Clemons, along with UFA's Philly Brown and Marcus Lucas all looking to prove they can play at this level.
WR1: Jerricho Cotchery
This one's another position where I just don't see how he doesn't win this. While Kelvin Benjamin has shown great upside and ability, he isn't quite as polished as his fellow 1st round receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. Cotchery is the only receiver on roster with a 1,000 yard season under his belt, and he's coming off an excellent 2013 campain in Pittsburgh. You can't argue with production, and you want consistency from your number one receiver
WR2: Jason Avant
Not many people are as high on Avant on others, but he consistently put up good number 3 receiver numbers in Philly his entire career. He and Cotchery should provide excellent leadership and consistent receiver production (as pedestrian as it may appear at that time) until Kelvin Benjamin is ready to take the reigns. I expect Benjamin to become more involved as 2014 rolls on, but out the gates I expect Avant to keep that number two spot nice and warm for when Benjamin is ready for it.
WR3: Kelvin Benjamin
When I say wide receiver 3, I am not referring to the "slot" receiver. Most likely we will see a combination of Cotchery, Avant, and possibly Tavarres King coming in to the slot, and I don't expect the number 3 receiver spot to be locked in as one particular guy. Tiquan Underwood should be stepping in many times as an outside deep threat in multi-receiver sets. However, regardless of how far along Benjamin is in his development, the best catalyst for maturity in the game is getting actual snaps. Benjamin is easily our best redzone threat and showed he can excel at this in college. Benjamin could kick off the season at number one if he's moved fast enough, but I expect a 600 yard 6-7 TD stat line from him in 2014. Expect him to be heavily involved in the passing game with an upward trend in snaps as the season progresses. And don't count Underwood out of the rotation either. Both should see their fair share.
Do you agree with my rankings Panther fans? And what receivers do you think will stick on the final 53?