None of the Panthers’ roster moves this offseason have been particularly surprising, the latest of which being the decision not to re-sign impending free-agent Devin Funchess.
The fourth-year wide receiver’s departure coincides with head coach Ron Rivera’s declaration that the team wants to add playmakers this offseason, and especially makes sense given what Rivera said the Panthers want in a receiver.
“I think the biggest thing is, what does the guy do once he gets the ball in his hands,” Rivera told Panthers reporters at the NFL scouting combine on Thursday. “If he can go out and make those contested catches that’s very important. His willingness to block. But once you get past those things, what happens when he has the ball in his hands?”
Funchess’ 1.8 yards-after-catch average was the second-lowest in the NFL among qualified receivers. His role diminished throughout the latter half of the season while 2018 first-round pick D.J. Moore, who led all NFL receivers in average yards after catch, established himself as the team’s No. 1 option in the passing game.
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Moore’s skill set mirrors 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel’s, and developing the duo continues to be a priority for Carolina — although veterans Jarius Wright and Torrey Smith each have a defined role.
While some fans have lobbied for another physical receiver like Funchess to operate as a red-zone target, the Panthers are fine with more of the same.
It’s not like you can have too much of a good thing, right?
“That’s really what we saw last year with the guys that we had,” Rivera said. “You really say D.J. make things happen. Curtis was very explosive and dynamic. Jarius was just that possession guy that did good things and when Torrey was healthy, especially in the Philadelphia game (Week 7), you really got the chance to see what his potential for us could be going forward.”
Carolina’s next receiver is more likely to join the team via the draft than free agency, and several players at the combine fit Rivera’s description. South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel (5-foot-11, 211 pounds) was arguably the best player at the Senior Bowl in January and is dynamic with the ball in his hands — as is Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry (6-foot-2, 228 pounds), who’s more elusive than you’d expect from a receiver of his size.
The biggest difference between the two, however, is Harry’s willingness to block.
Well, more like eagerness to block.
“I’m an extremely aggressive blocker, but with me being aggressive I feel like I’m very controlled at the same time,” Harry said Friday. “I feel like at the next level, I can be an extremely elite blocker.
“I’m the type of player that loves to impose my will on other players on the other team, especially on smaller corners. So if they needed me to block a lot, I’d have no problem doing that.”
Harry was one of the nation’s best wide receivers last season and the Panthers could check off several boxes if they’re able to draft him. Doing so, however, might be tricky if he continues to impress at the combine, where he benched 27 reps of 225 pounds Friday.
Especially if he shows he can separate and accelerate quickly, landing him would likely require Carolina to either trade up for an additional first round or early second-round pick, or spend the No. 16 overall pick on him — neither of which are prudent given the team’s more-glaring needs.
An intriguing option is Georgia’s Mecole Hardman (5-foot-10, 187 pounds), a converted defensive back who is still learning how to play wide receiver. He’s a scholar, however, in making plays with the ball in his hands.
He also doesn’t need to be taught the importance of blocking.
“Where I come from, if you don’t block, you don’t play,” Hardman said. “I was on the field, so I guess I did pretty good for myself.
“It’s all effort and a willingness to put your head in and block. Technique plays a part in that, as well, keeping your hands inside, running him off or other things you have to do. Definitely technique goes into it, but it’s more the willingness to go in and actually block.”
Notice how Hardman said blocking takes effort and willingness — they’re not necessarily the same thing. Hunter Renfrow learned that lesson earlier this week.
The Clemson receiver’s strengths are known — reliable hands, shifty feet, sharp routes, high football IQ and high character. Blocking isn’t one of them, although it’s because he isn’t willing to do so. He found out, however, that willingness alone isn’t enough.
“I actually had a talk with a scout about that the other day. I feel like it’s one of my weaknesses I have to get better at,” Renfrow said. “I was like, ‘effort and willingness’ and I talked like they were the same thing. He was like, ‘no, willingness is just being willing to put your body on the line, effort is the application of it.’”
At this stage, it’s impossible to predict which receiver the Panthers will draft — if they take one at all. But we do know what their skill set will be.
In fact, there are plenty of examples already on roster.