Coach Ron Rivera conceded the Carolina Panthers might enter the 2014 season without a No. 1 wide receiver after the team cut Steve Smith.
He said they might not need one because of the way their offense is currently constructed.
“I don’t think you need a true No. 1 that does everything. I don’t think you need to have a guy like Detroit’s Calvin Johnson,” Rivera said Wednesday on the final day of the league meetings. “I think you need to have a guy that’s going to account – if there’s 10 catches in a game by your wide receivers, he gets six of them.”
The Panthers finished 11th in the league in rushing last season (126.6 yards per game), but were 29th in passing offense (190.2). Their four wideouts – none of whom remain with the team – combined for 9.75 receptions a game.
“Look at it this way – last year we rushed (14) out of 16 games for 100 yards. We were (fifth) in the league in total time of possession. Our receivers averaged – as a group, collectively – 10 catches a game,” Rivera said. “If we are going to continue to run the ball successfully, on the average we have to make 10 catches a game.”
The Panthers’ wideouts accounted for just more than half of the team’s 18.25 catches a game among their receivers, running backs and tight ends. Tight end Greg Olsen was the leading receiver for the Panthers, who were 28th in receptions a game.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the Panthers released Smith on March 13, Rivera defended general manager Dave Gettleman’s handling of the situation and suggested the 34-year-old Smith is slowing down.
“He’s not the vertical speed guy that he was,” Rivera said of Smith, the Panthers’ all-time receiving leader who signed with Baltimore a day after the Panthers cut him. “He still has the speed, but not the vertical, top-end. He’s still explosive.”
Carolina signed two receivers last week – former Pittsburgh wideout Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood, who spent the past two seasons in Tampa Bay. Neither was signed to be a No. 1 receiver.
Rivera said the 31-year-old Cotchery was brought in to help develop the team’s young receivers, but the Panthers also believe “he has a few really good years left.”
Cotchery, a physical receiver who played mostly in the slot with the Steelers, caught a career-high 10 touchdowns last season as he emerged as Ben Roethlisberger’s main red-zone target.
The Panthers hope Underwood can be the deep threat that Ted Ginn Jr. was last season before leaving for Arizona in free agency. Underwood, 27, has not caught more than 28 passes in any of his first five seasons, although he averaged a career-best 18.3 yards per catch in 2013.
The Panthers also lost No. 2 wideout Brandon LaFell (to New England) and seldom-used Domenik Hixon (to Chicago) in free agency.
In addition to Cotchery and Underwood, the Panthers are counting on a deep draft at receiver and the development of Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King to fill the void left by Smith and Co.
Rivera indicated the Panthers would take at least one receiver in the May 8-10 draft, and maybe more.
“Could we draft a couple? Well, I didn’t think we’d draft a couple (defensive tackles last year), especially 1 and 2,” Rivera said. “So that’s a possibility.”
Rivera backed Gettleman for making a difficult decision that Rivera said was strictly about football.
“Dave did a heck of a job and he took a hit for us in the public. And the people need to understand that what Dave did is what he believed was best,” Rivera said. “This was not a personal decision. There was nothing personal about this. ... This was not a willy-nilly, fly-by-night vengeful thing. That’s one thing about Dave, he is very calculated. And he anguished. I hope people understand that it is a process.”
According to league sources, the Panthers made the move in large part because they viewed Smith as a distraction and did not want him to negatively impact the development of the young receivers.
Smith saw his production fall off in 2013. His yards-per-catch average dropped nearly 5 yards to 11.6 yards per reception, his lowest average since 2007.
Besides mentioning Smith’s decline in speed, Rivera also said Smith needs to tone down his practice habits or risk wearing down at the end of the season.
Smith missed only one game last season, sitting out the Week 17 finale at Atlanta with a sprained knee. Smith sustained the non-contact injury the previous week against New Orleans while running a slant route.
He rehabbed his knee and scored the Panthers’ only touchdown in the playoff loss to San Francisco. But he was shut out in the second half when the 49ers adjusted their coverage.
“Steve will still find ways to make plays,” Rivera said. “And as far as football decisions go, we have to move on eventually. This was an opportunity to do it.
“The thing that we had to look at is we have a good group of young guys that we feel need to get opportunities. We’ve got the draft and there’s no secret that at some point if we’ve got a chance to draft a wide receiver we are going to do it.”