Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said something very interesting before Carolina’s last regular-season game about why he thinks the NFC South, which sent three teams to the playoffs this year, has become so competitive.
Kuechly said the franchise quarterbacks and star receivers leading each team in the division were big factors, citing the Saints’ Michael Thomas, the Falcons’ Julio Jones and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.
As I walked away from the media scrum I thought: What about Carolina? Where is the star wideout?
The Panthers traded away a stagnant receiver Kelvin Benjamin in October. On paper, Benjamin was the player former general manager Dave Gettleman drafted in 2014 to become Carolina’s “big name” receiver.
But after an impressive rookie season, he never quite got there.
With Benjamin gone, Devin Funchess stepped into the No. 1 role and began to embrace it. In the first five games after the Benjamin trade, Funchess had 24 catches for 405 yards.
But we didn’t see the breadth of what Funchess can do. He played the last three games with a hurt shoulder, and his production dipped dramatically.
His battered supporting cast, which by the end of the season featured three receivers with just 30 catches between them, hardly fared better. Rookie receiver/running back Christian McCaffrey led the Panthers with 80 receptions, and was targeted on 22 percent of quarterback Cam Newton’s pass attempts.
Separation was an issue. Route-running was an issue. Timing was an issue. Winning contested balls was an issue.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner is evaluating every pass to every receiver from last season and has indicated that the talent around Newton must play at a higher level.
And that means interim general manager Marty Hurney has to choose wisely this offseason in free agency and the draft.
Hurney needs to commit to finding help for Newton, and must ask three important questions of his roster as he evaluates the talent available this spring.
1. Should the Panthers go all-in on Funchess as the No. 1 receiver?
This is important for two reasons.
If Carolina thinks Funchess can continue the progress he showed during that five-game stretch and seal his place as a No. 1 receiver, they need a formidable talent in the slot to complement him.
If they want Funchess back in a No. 2 role, the Panthers must go out and spend big money on a No. 1 receiver who can – and this is key – still complement Funchess’ abilites, or draft one with a high pick.
2. Can the young receivers on the roster overcome a year stalled by injury and become effective?
Carolina hoped to use second-round pick Curtis Samuel in the slot and as a deep threat in his rookie year. Samuel’s McCaffrey-esque abilities to create space make him a promising but untested talent who is a year behind after he missed training camp and then went on injured reserve mid-November.
Former undrafted free agent Damiere Byrd was also gaining momentum after working his way on to the active roster. Byrd had to go on injured reserve twice in 2017, but the Panthers believe he can be a factor in the fall.
3. Where can Hurney find the pieces Carolina needs?
Options in free agency:
Jacksonville’s receivers made quarterback Blake Bortles look pretty good, and now the Jaguars now have too many talented wideouts on their roster – with some in contract years – to pay.
In his free agency evaluation process, Hurney should start with the Jaguars.
Allen Robinson can be a top talent in the league, despite missing last year while recovering from ACL surgery. If Carolina wants a No. 1 receiver, Robinson might be one of their best options. He won’t be cheap, but might be cheaper than he would have been before the surgery.
If the Panthers want a a dynamic slot option for a lower price, Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee overcame early drops with an impressive postseason performance and also showed his ability as a downfield blocker. This is very important in Carolina, as Turner will want to use his receivers to create space for McCaffrey as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Elsewhere, Baltimore veteran Mike Wallace, at 31, is showing no signs of slowing down after a 748-yard season and may be more cost-effective because of his age.
Carolina will get Byrd, the best hope for a down-field threat on the roster, back from injury in 2018. But if the Panthers are looking for a vertical threat with more experience, Arizona’s John “Smokey” Brown is also a free agent and has showed flashes with the Cardinals, including a 1,000-yard season in 2015.
Options in the draft:
If Hurney wants immediate help for Newton and thinks he can find it in the 2018 draft, he needs an NFL-ready rookie. Players in that mold largely fall in the first three rounds of the draft.
Carolina should be looking for prospects who specialize in separating from defensive backs and linebackers, as well as an ability to win catches in tight windows
Realistically, the early favorite as the top receiver in this year’s draft, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, will not fall to the Panthers’ No. 24 pick.
That might be OK. Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk is pretty special, too.
At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Kirk doesn’t tower over defensive backs – but sure shows a knack for getting space from them. Many analysts call Kirk’s playmaking ability “electric” and “explosive.”
Penn State product Daesean Hamilton is generating a lot of buzz after strong performances in Shrine Game and Senior Bowl workouts. The buzz is justified: Hamilton is a route specialist who has played outside but excels in the slot. He doesn’t lose speed out of his cuts and wins contested catches consistently. NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell was spot-on when he called Hamilton a “junk ball” receiver: “He’ll go down and pluck it off his shoes. He’ll high point a contested ball. He’ll open up on a back-shoulder/underthrown ball. He’s a quarterback’s best friend,” Fennell tweeted last week.
Boise State’s Cedrick Wilson Jr. is another prospect to keep an eye on this spring. Wilson had 2,640 yards and 18 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons. His length, strength and big-play ability make him an early third-round projection, with the potential to climb higher as draft season continues.