The Carolina Panthers need more speed, and more depth, at wide receiver.
This year’s draft class could help.
For the second consecutive year, the receivers group is shaping up to be one of the best positional groups in the draft. After locking up their top receiver in last year’s draft with 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers could look for a complement to him with the 25th overall pick in April’s NFL draft.
Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong could be that player. At 6-2 and 217 pounds, Strong ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash this weekend at the NFL scouting combine, proving he has the speed NFL teams covet.
But that’s not all he has.
“I’m very, very smart when it comes to getting up on the board and recognizing coverages, recognizing hot reads and things like that,” Strong said. “That’s something the media doesn’t know about me. You guys see what I put on film. You don’t really get the chance to talk to me about the game of football and how much I do know about football. That’s one thing I definitely will stress upon the GMs and coaches when I get a chance to meet with them.”
Strong had more than 1,100 receiving yards in each of his two seasons at Arizona State after transferring to the Sun Devils from a Los Angeles junior college.
He showed in college that he can make a contested catch, and his 42-inch vertical jump this weekend at the combine reinforced that ability. His leap was second-best among receivers behind only Georgia’s Chris Conley’s 45-inch leap.
Some prospects are shy about discussing their weaknesses, but Strong had no such reservations. He said he knows he needs to be better getting in and out of his route breaks, and he has actively worked on it after the season with former Arizona Cardinals receiver Roy Green.
“That’s something I definitely need to work on,” Strong said. “I can’t stress that enough, didn’t do a great job of that on the collegiate level and I look forward to turning it on at the pro level.”
Should the Panthers use their first-round pick on a receiver, Strong is just one candidate to replace veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who enters the final year of his contract with Carolina, as the team’s No. 2 target.
West Virginia’s Kevin White, Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Louisville’s DeVante Parker are all expected to be gone before Carolina selects. Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham is a wild card with his history of failed drug tests and domestic violence allegations, and he’s likely off the Panthers’ board.
But along with Strong, Auburn’s Sammie Coates is a potential target for the Panthers. Coates edged Strong in the 40 with a 4.43-second run, and his bench press (23 reps), vertical jump (41 inches), broad jump (131 inches) and 20-yard shuttle (4.06 seconds) were all among the top performers at receiver this weekend.
Though his speed indicates he’s a vertical threat, Coates isn’t reliable catching the ball. He had a drop rate of 19.1 percent last season with the Tigers, something he chalked up to a “lack of focus.”
But Coates, 21, has shown plenty of maturity in the past month. At January’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Coates was constantly posing for pictures and signing autographs for the hundreds of Auburn – and Alabama – fans at the week’s practices.
He also signed an endorsement deal with Under Armour and gave some of the proceeds to his high school in Leroy, Ala.
“Just to give back to where I came from,” Coates said. “I went to a small high school – only 75 in my graduation class, so not much go through there, not many people that many stores, a dollar store – that’s it. But to give back to my high school, that’s big to me.”
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Second- or third-round wide receiver possibilities
Devin Smith, Ohio State: Speedster who had 12 touchdown catches for the national champs last season.
Rashad Greene, Florida State: The Seminoles’ career leader in receptions and receiving yards, Greene is a little slight at 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds.
Nelson Agholor, Southern Cal: The underclassman runs good routes and has potential at punt returner.
Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: Fought off press coverage for the better part of two years and has 4.40 speed to be dangerous in the slot and at returning punts.