Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton compared the team’s offense to the Titanic late last season, and if that’s the case, then its receiving corps was the iceberg.
Much of that was because of injuries.
Tight end Greg Olsen, Newton’s most reliable target, spent eight weeks on injured reserve healing from a broken foot. Second-round draft pick Curtis Samuel battled hamstring injuries through training camp and the early part of the year, and suffered ligament damage in his ankle mid-season just as he was starting to flash his enormous potential.
Devin Funchess became the team’s No. 1 wideout following the trade of Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo in October, and had a stellar five-game stretch before hurting his shoulder and playing through the injury for the remainder of the season. And lightning-fast deep threat Damiere Byrd went on injured reserve twice in one year, though he provided a spark when he was able to play.
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All of that made it pretty tough for the Panthers’ offense to find its rhythm. Carolina finished No. 28 in the league in passing, at 192 yards per game, with 22 touchdowns.
By the end of the year, head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney made it clear: Newton needed some help at receiver, and they were committed to getting it for him.
Hurney traded second-year cornerback Daryl Worley for speedy veteran Torrey Smith, brought in slot specialist Jarius Wright in free agency and drafted D.J. Moore with the No. 24 pick in the NFL draft. Funchess, Olsen and Byrd are healthy and Samuel is eyeing full clearance by training camp next week.
The iceberg is now more like an ice cube, and even that should quickly melt in the Spartanburg heat.
Despite the fact that he was limited in spring workouts as he continued to rehabilitate his surgically repaired ankle, Samuel’s speed, body control and sharpness on routes was remarkable. If he can match that at game speed and stay healthy, big things are ahead for the second-year receiver as a slot man and vertical threat.
To be decided in camp
How will Moore be utilized in Norv Turner’s offense? The rookie flashed impressive hands and athleticism in spring workouts, and the Panthers liked him for his versatility and ability to create yards after contact when they were scouting him before the draft. Expect Moore to be a plug-and-play type of receiver who can line up at any receiving position, much like running back Christian McCaffrey.
Underdog to watch
Byrd gave life to the Panthers offense and return game multiple times last season. Who could ever forget the one-cheek-sneak touchdown catch?
But after returning from injury, Byrd is once again competing for a role in the offense. His speed and willingness to contribute on special teams always make him a contender.
Also keep an eye on
Wright is impressively crisp on his routes, which is a key focus in Turner’s offense - one with which he’s very familiar.
He is also a notable and consistent factor on third down: 41 percent of Wright’s 153 career catches have been on third down, for 955 yards (about 46 percent of his career total 2,039 yards). He also averaged 14.7 yards per third down catch, his highest average by down, with a 74 percent catch rate.
Three bold predictions
▪ Olsen and Funchess will both come close to 1,000-yard seasons this fall, with plenty of passes to go around in Turner’s vertical attack. This is key for Funchess in a contract year.
▪ The Panthers keep six receivers this fall, tripling down on their promise that Newton will have the help he needs even if injuries happen. The list: Funchess, Moore, Smith, Samuel, Wright and Byrd.
▪ Samuel’s mother won’t drop him off at training camp next week like she did last summer — instead, he’ll roll up in his brand-new black Maserati.