Training camp is around the corner, and the only thing hotter than the field in Spartanburg, S.C. is the battle for the Carolina Panthers’ final roster spots at wide receiver.
Ask any Panthers fan and they will tell you that this is the best crop of receivers the team has had since Steve Smith Sr. last graced the field in black and blue. Some will tell you the team hasn’t fielded a better group since the days when Jake Delhomme found defensive backs with more ease than the likes of Smith or Muhsin Muhammad,
Though those sentiments echo throughout the fanbase nearly every offseason, this year they have a chance at sticking. On paper, the Panthers have an exciting blend of speed, veteran leadership, and play-making ability.
The group is headlined by D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, two youngsters with an abundance of potential and a knack for making highlight-reel plays. The duo is set to be Cam Newton’s primary targets out wide for the foreseeable future.
Behind them is a trio of veterans the coaching staff has assembled to provide leadership and chain-moving ability on third down. The team returns a more affordable Torrey Smith and the ever-reliable Jarius Wright while adding two-time Super Bowl champion Chris Hogan.
Wright lived up to his moniker of “Mr. Third Down” in his first season with the team by leading the team’s wide receivers in targets, total receptions, and first down catches on third down. What is even more impressive is that over 30 percent of his total receptions came on third down and he moved the chains on 76.9 percent of those catches. Wright also had the highest catch percentage of any wide receiver and just three drops on 59 targets. He isn’t a game-breaker, but his reliability and aptitude for getting open on third down all but assures him a roster spot.
The fourth and fifth receiver spots appear to be locked down by Smith and Hogan. Smith didn’t see the field much and didn’t play particularly well when he did. However, taking a pay cut to give Carolina cap flexibility exhibited the kind of team-first behavior the coaching staff values. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a lock, but he has a good of chance as any to make the final roster.
Hogan comes in with high expectations after one of his best seasons with the New England Patriots culminated with his second Super Bowl ring. The 6-foot-1-inch receiver is the tallest wideout on the roster and has a knack for making drive saving plays. Last season, on downs with 10+ yards to go, Hogan caught 24 balls on 33 targets for 339 yards and two touchdowns. He is also a force to be reckoned with on routine first downs. If Hogan was targeted on 1st & 10, you could almost guarantee the result would be a fresh set of downs. In those situations, Hogan averaged over 13 yards per target, good for 10 first downs on 17 receptions.
With the top five receivers pretty much set, there may be room for one more pass catcher to round out the roster. The Panthers have initially kept six receivers each of the last three seasons. The last time they didn’t roll with six was in 2015 when they kept five but also had Joe Webb on the roster as an emergency option.
If the Panthers are to keep six once again, the most likely competitors for that spot will be former AAF receiver Rashad Ross, seventh round pick Terry Godwin, and journeyman Aldrick Robinson.
Godwin’s selection had the fanbase excited as most felt he was a steal in the draft’s final round. The former Georgia Bulldog possesses reliable hands, good route running ability, experience at punt returner, and enough speed to get the job done. However, his slender frame and the team’s logjam in the slot are threats to his chances at making the opening roster.
Ross seems to be the most likely candidate to fill out the receiving room after leading the AAF in receiving yards before the league’s demise. During his time with the Arizona Hotshots, Ross relied on the effortless speed that has long been his calling card. The former Arizona State Sun Devil averaged over 16 yards a catch and recorded a reception of 25+ yards in six of his eight games for the Hotshots last season.
After letting Damiere Byrd walk this offseason, the Panthers have a void to fill at kick returner. Ross has hung around the NFL circuit due to his ability on special teams. In 2015, Ross returned a kick 101 yards for a touchdown, recording a top speed of 21.5 MPH along the way. If he can show the Panthers’ brass that he hasn’t lost a step at age 29, he will be in a good position to make the final roster.
Final Roster Prediction: D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright, Chris Hogan, Torrey Smith, Rashad Ross — (Terry Godwin to Practice Squad)
Despite whoever wins the battle for the last spot or two at receiver, the Panthers will start the season with their best group of pass catchers in years. The development of Moore and Samuel will be key in elevating the Panthers offense and making life easier for Cam and his surgically repaired shoulder. If No. 1 can get the ball into the hands of his playmakers on time and accurately, Carolina is poised to have one of the most electric and exciting offenses in the league this season.
Who should round out the roster at wide receiver?
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