Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said on Tuesday that the staff would spend two weeks analyzing the team, looking to avoid hasty, emotional decisions. The Observer will do the same, position by position. Up next: Receivers.
Three things to know
▪ Sub-par season: Carolina’s group of receivers posted a fairly disappointing season, and while some of that had to do with a career-low in completion percentage and quarterback rating from Cam Newton, there was plenty of blame to be spread to his receivers’ constant inability to separate both from scrimmage and in mid-to-end points of routes. Passing touchdowns also dropped sharply from 2015-16, from 35 to 21.
▪ Where was the separation? An offense that could rarely find a rhythm and ranked 21st in the league in passing yards needs to evolve, head coach Ron Rivera repeated several times near the season’s conclusion. Where the wideouts are concerned, this means being more of a threat immediately off the line of scrimmage, becoming effective in short routes and at gaining separation early.
▪ Receiva la Evolución Carolina is probably looking for a receiver to step up and be a threat in the slot – and if they have one on the roster already, he hasn’t shown up. This type of player will likely be part of the evolution process moving forward, either in free agency or in the draft, unless Rivera and Gettleman are confident one of their current players can adjust as needed.
On the roster
▪ Kelvin Benjamin: Benjamin returned this season from a year-long ACL recovery, but didn’t really show up until late in the year. The former first-round pick was expected to follow up a promising rookie season (1,008 yards and nine touchdowns) with an even better, albeit delayed, sophomore effort. Instead, Benjamin struggled with consistency and separation often and his targets dropped from 145-118 while his yards dropped to 941.
▪ Ted Ginn Jr.: Ted Ginn Jr. was one of two starting receivers who either met or surpassed last season’s numbers (tight end Greg Olsen was the other), and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Though his touchdowns dipped from 10 to four in 2016, he had 54 catches for 752 yards. Ginn Jr. is a free agent this year and wants to remain a Panther, is just as fast as ever at 32 and it’s likely the team keeps him on at a bargain.
▪ Devin Funchess: Funchess didn’t post an all-too-memorable rookie year with 31 catches for 473 yards, but his sophomore season saw an even deeper dip in production with 23 catches for 371 yards. Like Benjamin, Funchess struggled with separation and often couldn’t shake tight coverage at scrimmage or even late in his route.
▪ Also: Philly Brown (a restricted free agent) saw his production drop from 31 catches for 447 yards in 2015 to 27 catches for 276 yards in 2016. Backups Brenton Bersin (a restricted free agent) and Damiere Byrd hardly saw the field.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Kenny Stills: A free agent out of Miami, the 25-year-old Stills really impresses on tape when watching him jump off the line of scrimmage to create space. Stills isn’t the biggest or most physical receiver entering free agency this season, but he runs a 4.39-forty yard dash and excels in short routes and in accelerating at the top of a run to give a quarterback a wider window on a deep ball.
▪ Taylor Gabriel: Carolina is somewhat familiar with this Atlanta Falcons receiver, who, after getting picked up by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2014, is having a great 2016 season with the playoff-bound Falcons. Gabriel excels at long routes, which is something the Panthers like (although it didn’t work well for them in 2016), but sets himself apart with his speed. It’s pretty likely that Gabriel will want to stay with MVP candidate quarterback Matt Ryan, but he is competing for reps with star Julio Jones.
▪ Alshon Jeffrey: Jeffrey was suspended four games this season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, but remains one of the most talented threats in the slot in the league and finished the season with 821 yards and two touchdowns. He spent the 2016 season on Chicago’s franchise tag. If Jeffrey is pursuing a fresh start, his skill set offers plenty of speed, a large catch radius and excellent ability when needing to get physical against defensive backs.
▪ John Ross: It’s unlikely Carolina uses an early enough pick to nab Ross, who is one of the top projected receivers in the draft. But, for arguments’ sake, he’s a perfect fit for what the Panthers need in the slot and if they are serious about developing their wideouts’ skill from scrimmage. Ross is shifty and quick – think Ginn Jr. with a little more meat on his bones – and had 1,122 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns at Washington his final year.
▪ Dede Westbrook: Another receiver who could do some serious damage in a slot role in the NFL is Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook. He is projected as a second- or third-round pick and the Panthers probably won’t pick a wideout up that early. Additionally, while he fits the style of what Carolina will need on offense in the future, his past legal issues will probably make the Panthers pass. Look for the team to pursue a mold of this type of receiver, however, without the concern over off-field issues.
▪ Chris Godwin: Let’s say Carolina is confident in its receiver room and its ability to develop in the ways they need. That means they’ll only use a late-round pick on a receiver, if any at all, or go the undrafted free agent route. And if that’s the case, the best bargain for them might be under-the-radar Penn State wideout Chris Godwin, who declared for the draft last week. Godwin isn’t of the tall, Benjamin/Funchess prototype that Carolina has been fond of drafting of late, but instead is one of the best in college football at quick bursts from scrimmage, technical moves and at contested catches (he runs a 4.4-forty and averaged 16.6 yards per catch with 59 receptions, mostly because of his ability to extend a play). He was used effectively in Penn State’s new spread as the feature wideout and his football IQ is also insanely off the charts - in the film room, he’s more akin to a quarterback than a receiver.
The bottom line
Unless Carolina really sees a game-changing player, it’s very unlikely Gettleman and Co. will use a pick on a receiver in the first three or four rounds of the draft over, say, offensive linemen, edge-rushers and a running back. But after the struggles from scrimmage and with separation by the bigger and bulkier wideouts Gettleman has favored lately, whoever the Panthers do pick up could very well have the exact opposite skillset of leap-up-and-grab-it guys like Benjamin and Funchess.