Carolina Panthers wide receivers Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King were roommates for away games last year.
They had lockers near each other during the season, and in the offseason they frequently trade texts.
McNutt and King have heard the jokes. They are the only healthy receivers on the roster who remain from the 2013 season, and together they have a combined zero catches in the NFL.
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“That’s expected. I didn’t play last year,” King said. “The fans didn’t know anything about me. It’s expected that they say that. That doesn’t bother me at all. They’ll know who I am this year.”
During the past week, the Panthers have cut Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, seen No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell, No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. and No. 4 receiver Domenik Hixon leave in free agency and did not, for one reason or another, sign free-agent receivers Hakeem Nicks or James Jones.
Though it’s still not crystal clear, general manager Dave Gettleman does have a plan for his team at receiver. The wheels might have been set in motion as early as Week 6 of the 2013 season, when Carolina signed McNutt from the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad.
“When I came here we were 1-4, and I wouldn’t say they had given up on things, but they wanted some changes,” McNutt said. “They said, ‘You have a big opportunity to come in and work hard like we know you’re capable of doing. There are a couple guys here that will be up for contract so you want to make sure you put your best foot forward because this year or next year you could find a spot.’
“They’re just not going to go all straight young guys. There’s going to be guys they pick up. We have an opportunity to have some fresh faces around and show what we can do at this level.”
McNutt: A chance to make a play
McNutt’s best-known play in college was dodging a falling Skycam during the 2011 Insight Bowl.
Then an Iowa receiver, he broke the huddle just as ESPN’s camera snapped from one of its wires and came crashing to the ground as McNutt got tangled in the wires.
His best-known play with the Panthers was a touchdown that wasn’t.
With 38 seconds left in the first half of the regular-season finale at Atlanta, Cam Newton lofted a ball to McNutt, who was on a go route into the end zone. McNutt leaped over cornerback Robert Alford and secured the ball, but his feet came down out of bounds.
“It showed that Cam has the confidence in me to throw me the ball,” McNutt said. “He’s not afraid to put me in a position to make a play. It shows I can make a play. It was a big-time game and for me to be in that position, it shows him that I’m willing to go get it.”
Iowa recruited McNutt out of Hazelwood (Mo.) Central High to play quarterback, but he redshirted his first year and barely played as the third-team quarterback during his redshirt sophomore season. The Hawkeyes eventually moved McNutt, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, to wide receiver.
In 2 1/2 years, he became Iowa’s all-time leading receiver in yards (2,861) and touchdowns (28) while being named the top receiver in the Big Ten for his redshirt senior season.
The Philadelphia Eagles chose McNutt in the sixth round of the 2012 draft and he appeared in four games without any receptions. The team released him last spring and he was signed by the Dolphins the following day before the Panthers claimed him.
It has been quite a week for McNutt. After seeing four of his fellow receivers depart the Panthers, he married his college sweetheart last weekend.
“I’ve been in waiting mode and I haven’t been able to think about it too much,” McNutt said. “I know there’s a huge opportunity and huge opening for some receivers with Steve’s loss and the rest of the guys. … Now we get an opportunity to show what we came here for.”
King: Winning the numbers game
King fell victim to the numbers game in Denver, which last year had the opposite problem the Panthers do now.
With a glut of receivers at Peyton Manning’s disposal, the Broncos released their 2013 fifth-round draft pick to make room on the roster for linebacker Von Miller, who was returning from suspension.
Two days later, the Panthers scooped up King, in whom they saw youth and ability to get yards after the catch.
Offensive coordinator Mike “Shula told me to be ready when I got there, and I took that heart,” King said. “I took that as it’s mine for the taking. That’s how I took it. That’s what I’ve been doing.
“I hope I play a huge role, that I’m someone Cam relies on in big situations. I know that it’s not a one-man sport. I want to be somebody that’s dependable and someone that my team can count on.”
That’s what King provided at Georgia, where he led all Football Bowl Subdivision schools in yards per reception his senior season with 22.6.
King was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Georgia as a senior and had his choice of schools, but he decided to stay in-state in Mark Richt’s pro-style offense and play against SEC competition.
King’s freshman class at Georgia included A.J. Green, a standout receiver from Summerville, S.C. Green went on to be drafted fourth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 and has played in the Pro Bowl every year since entering the league.
“I had the opportunity to play alongside some ballers, and I got better with those guys,” King said. “Coming in with A.J., I knew we were going to compete. You saw how that went.”
As Green’s college career took off, King found his niche as the downfield threat.
Though he was inactive for the 10 games he was on the Panthers roster, King said practicing under receivers coach Ricky Proehl allowed the game to slow down for him. He added that he also learned more precise route running and attention to detail in the film room from Smith.
But with Smith and three other receivers from last year’s team gone, it’s King’s turn.
“We’re here for a reason,” King said. “You’ve got to come in like it’s yours. You have to take the approach that I’m going to be a guy that’s going to be out there on Sundays.”