Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman thought – correctly – that last year’s class of wide receivers had a chance to be special.
Led by the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham’s 1,305 receiving yards and Offensive Rookie of the Year award, the wideouts exceeded the high expectations Gettleman and other scouts and GMs had.
This year’s receivers group might lack the star power of Beckham and the size of Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, but Gettleman believes it might be better top to bottom.
“They’re all shapes and styles,” Gettleman said Tuesday. “I think there’s even more depth in this year’s group than last year’s group, which sounds crazy.”
The Panthers needed a No. 1 wideout – and a two and a three – last offseason after cutting Steve Smith and letting Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon leave in free agency.
Even after signing several wide receivers in free agency a year ago, they entered the draft looking for a play-making receiver to pair with Cam Newton for the foreseeable future.
Enter Benjamin, the 28th pick, whose 73 catches, 1,008 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns were the most by a Panthers rookie.
Despite Benjamin’s success and the return of the speedy Ginn as the No. 3 receiver, the Panthers could stand to give Newton another target, especially with slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery eligible for free agency after the season.
But Gettleman said he doesn’t feel a sense of urgency this year at receiver, or any other position.
“Can we use a guy here, can we use a guy there? Yeah, who can’t?” Gettleman said during a pre-draft news conference. “But we’re not walking into this draft like we were last year at wide receiver. I feel a lot better going into this draft right now than I did last year.”
Gettleman said the Panthers had to remake three positions last offseason – receiver, offensive tackle and the secondary.
“And we made good strides in all three groups, good enough to get to the second round of the playoffs and play one of the Super Bowl teams pretty tough in their joint,” he said.
But the loss at Seattle further emphasized the Panthers’ need to improve their team speed, a box Gettleman believes the Panthers checked in free agency.
And while there aren’t any wide receivers in this year’s class who can rival the size of Benjamin (6-5, 240) and Evans (6-5, 231), there are a number of speed receivers, including Miami’s Phillip Dorsett and Ohio State’s Devin Smith.
Most draft analysts believe four wideouts will be taken in the first round: Alabama’s Amari Cooper, West Virginia’s Kevin White, Louisville’s DeVante Parker and Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman.
Parker (6-3, 209) and Perriman (6-2, 212) were reportedly among the Panthers’ 30 visits, although both are bigger receivers more along the lines of Benjamin.
Given what Gettleman said about the depth of this year’s class, the Panthers might think they can find value by drafting a wideout in a later round.
In addition to Parker and Perriman, the Panthers also brought Smith and Stanford’s Ty Montgomery in for visits and worked out Dorsett, Southern Cal’s Nelson Agholor, Duke’s Jamison Crowder and East Carolina’s Justin Hardy, according to reports.
Gettleman said the proliferation of spread offenses in the college game means many receivers now arrive in the NFL having run only a handful of routes.
“Last year after we took Kelvin you guys looked at me and said, ‘Well, he’s a raw route-runner.’ And my answer was, ‘They all are,’” Gettleman said. “The only guy really who was ready to step on an NFL field and play was Beckham. He was the guy (who could run) a full route tree. He could run the full schmear. He had it all. After that, they all need work. Well, this group’s no different.”
Beckham, Benjamin and Evans all finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards as rookies, and Buffalo wideout and former Clemson standout Sammy Watkins was 18 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark. All four were drafted in the first round.
Brandin Cooks, the other first-round wideout last year, was the Saints’ leading receiver when he went on injured reserve with thumb and wrist injuries.
Several others taken in later rounds, including Jarvis Landry, Jordan Matthews and John Brown, also made big impacts as rookies.
“I think we’re going to find in time that last year’s group was unique,” Gettleman said. “I think there’s more depth throughout than there was last year. (But) I think in time we’re all going to look back – it’s not the ’83 college quarterback draft – but I think in time we’re all going to look back and realize it was a unique group of wides.”
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