SPARTANBURG -- For Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell, the training camp charge is clear.
"It is his time," head coach Ron Rivera said of LaFell.
The Panthers know what they have in their No. 1 wide receiver, Steve Smith. They have downfield speed, experience, tenacity, intelligence and passion.
At the other wide receiver spot, the Panthers know what they want -- a reliable receiver who gets open, works in the middle of the field, is a downfield threat, can be an effective blocker and can do it all consistently.
It's LaFell's job as training camp grinds toward the end of its first full week. He's the guy running first-team plays with Smith when the Panthers run team drills against the defense.
The third-year receiver from LSU found a comfort level and grew into the role in the second half of last season. The challenge now is for LaFell to build on what he did in 2011 and provide a complement to Smith for quarterback Cam Newton.
At some point in training camp, Rivera expects David Gettis to return to active status and challenge for the No. 2 job after missing last season with a knee injury. Seyi Arijotutu, a free-agent pick-up last season, has stood out in the early days of training camp as has Louis Murphy, acquired in a trade from Oakland shortly before camp began.
Second-year receiver Kealoha Pilares continues to make progress, former Appalachian State Armanti Edwards is trying to stick for a third season and free agent Jared Green has brought another spark to the receiver spot.
"We're not going to put no pressure on nobody," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It's an intriguing competition at that (No. 2) position. We're expecting a lot from Brandon LaFell, Tutu, Kealoha, in addition to Murphy.
"All those guys have qualities and traits to be a great receiver in this league."
LaFell understands his challenge.
"At the end of the day I've got to compete for my job. And that's what training camp's about," LaFell said.
A third-round draft choice in 2010, LaFell caught more passes (38) in his rookie season than he did last year (36) but he had a bigger impact a year ago. LaFell averaged 17.0 yards per reception last season, an increase of almost five yards per catch, and he had three touchdown receptions.
LaFell penciled his name into the Panthers record book when he went 91 yards with a reception for a touchdown in a victory at Tampa Bay.
After a strong start, LaFell caught just six passes in a five-game stretch as the Panthers searched for their personality under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Starting with a three-catch game at Detroit in November, LaFell was consistently productive as the Panthers won four of their last six games.
The only time LaFell came up empty was in a game at Houston, where he failed to catch a pass in his hometown.
"Not just (LaFell) but other guys took a while to get comfortable. DeAngelo Williams was another guy we were concerned about. But then he started to come along and that's the truth of the matter. This is not a simple offense," Rivera said.
"We know where we're going and we know where we're headed now. It took some guys a little longer. That's unfortunately the nature of when you bring in a new staff, a new philosophy, new defensive, offensive and special teams schemes, there's a learning curve."
Rivera said the Panthers will change some of what they ask of LaFell or whomever the No. 2 receiver is this season. With Smith as the obvious downfield threat, Legedu Naane was often the receiver who ran underneath routes, dragging defensive attention across the middle in an effort to open routes for Smith or tight end Greg Olsen.
When Olsen got hurt against New Orleans last year, the Saints were able to limit Smith's options.
"At that point, you would like to see Brandon take over," Rivera said. "As a young player learning how to do things, this year is a good opportunity."
The acquisition of Murphy from the Oakland Raiders just prior to training camp was a signal the Panthers are keeping all options open beyond Smith at wide receiver. Murphy made an immediate impact in the early practices and LaFell noticed.
"When you got a guy that's come in, he really doesn't know the offense. But his first day out there he catches balls and makes plays and looks like he knows what he's doing," LaFell said.
"It makes you step your game up, and be like, I've got to stay in my playbook. I've got to keep going ahead and making plays and catching a lot of balls."
Ultimately, Rivera said, it's about LaFell -- or another receiver -- being able to make plays, preferably downfield.
"In this offense, one of the things we want to make sure we have is guys that can attack vertical first and foremost because we are a down-the-field passing team. And then secondly, guys that present big targets, especially guys that will go over the middle," Rivera said.
"One of the things that (receivers coaches) Fred (Graves) and Ricky (Proehl) constantly harp on is speed and quickness off the ball. They get downfield in a hurry and then get into their routes. That's important. We have a quarterback that can hold the ball and move around and create time. But for the most part, if we're going to throw these things off of timing, they've got to get off the line, they've got to get vertical quickly and then get into their routes."