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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Clean Slate - 2014 Receivers, TEs

Carolina's last quarter, and their playoff game, showed some
deficiencies at WR. This was exascerbated by Steve Smith's PCL injury.
There's no doubting that Smith is the top guy, or that Greg Olsen (team
leader in

While Carolina had more depth at WR than it had in years, without Smith
there was no real power, no one to create much. The way that other
teams treated a Panthers team without Smith only tightened up coverage
more on an offense that already gave minimal reason to respect the deep
threat, a far cry from 2011.

Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr, and Domenik Hixon are all pending free
agents. Neither of the latter could unseat the former for a starting
role, but none of them performed at an exceptionally high level.
Concerning in the mix is that LaFell, on his rookie contract, and
Ginn/Hixon on one year deals, didn't count for that much on the cap.

To start with the backups, Ginn was better than expected. His 36
catches for 556 (15.4 avg) were good, but his 5 TDs were well above what
the team had gotten of Louis Murphy (25/336/1) in 2012. It's not that
impressive compared to 2011, which slung the ball all over the place
(with more balls to Smith, 4 guys caught over 40 balls and LaFell and
Jeremy Shockey pitched in over 35 as well, and that's with the anonymous
Legedu Naanee starting). Ginn exceeded expectations

Ginn added the best return job the team had seen in a while, pitching
in an extra 2 per return on punts from the committee of '12 (which was
bolstered by a 69 yarder for a full 25% of its yardage) and 7 over 2011
(kicks were actually down a couple of yards, though Ginn's were about
equal to expected totals of 23.8).

Hixon was perplexing. Did Ginn earn his job, and Hixon was just hurt
at the time? Possibly. Of course, often hurt and 29 already, that's
not an exceptional sign. But Hixon, before that, was a very good
receiver. I don't have a good explanation for it, though obviously I'm
glad he was here to make the play in Smith's absence.

LaFell was on his way to a top notch year before Smith got hurt. He
had started all games, first in his career, and was easily on his way to
career highs While he did reach that for each receptions, yards, and
TDs, he was all but missing in the games that Smith was out, pulling
down only 1 reception in the NO game in which Smith got hurt, and 0 in
the following game against bottomfeeder Atlanta. He'd averaged 3.5 rec,
42 yards and .4 TD in the prior five games, which isn't incredible, but
was respectable. .5 receptions for 6.5 yards per game in the final two
was poor. 4 receptions for 34 in the playoff loss wasn't exactly awe
inspiring, either.

So, what I see in LaFell is an OK #2 guy. And that role is open. You
know who he is. He's not fast or explosive enough to completely take
over a game, and despite his blocking prowess, he's never going to be
big enough (or play big enough) to be that true posession guy. He's a
tweener, a guy who's able to make some big plays with the coverage
rolled to the other side but not a guy who beats the jam well or can
beat extra attention. He's just a guy.

So what looked at midseason like a legitimate problem (how do we keep
LaFell and Ginn?) looks as much opportunity. Even with the FA group
being a little lacking, I don't think Carolina will put that much into
LaFell. Ginn becomes a matter of this - do you want to spend another
$1.2 million this year on him being the returner, and insurance against
young receivers (i.e., he might have to start if your first rounder is
slow out of the gate)? If not, you go get a short term starter, and

There's always the Hakeem Nicks, one year, "show me" deal, I guess.
That's definitely a solution to things- a free agent. Nicks was
woefully underproductive, so it's a good time to go get him cheap, but
he also brings considerable worry. There are reasons to not do that, of
course, that are apparent. It looks like him being a UNC guy, and being
with the Giants while Dave Gettleman was there, that makes this a tidy
package. But I don't know if he's the guy you think you're getting.

In free agents, as far as last year's quality/production:

*Anquan Boldin isn't likely to move around, and I'll guess the same for
Eric Decker.
*Seattle's Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate are very interesting. Seattle
can't pay both, and they have investments on Percy Harvin and Sidney
Rice, so they might pay neither. But, these two were their leading
receivers. Tate is essentially Steve Smith in a younger package, and
Baldwin is a sneakily big play slot type guy. But, both will come at a
cost. Baldwin might be the most interesting, as a Stanford grad he
played in essentially this offense.
*Jerrico Cotchery is interesting, and at 32, he might come cheap and
adds some size.
*James Jones/Packers is interesting, but I'll guess he stays.
*Dexter McCluster is an interesting guy if you're looking for a hybrid
role. The former RB can play that Percy Harvin type role and played
mostly WR the last few years, and is a good returner if you're trying to
ably replace Ginn.
*Mario Manningham is a guy who fits the O, might come cheap, and has
experience with Dave Gettleman (though he was allowed to leave in
Gettleman's time as well).
*Robert Meacham is the size guy on the list to a point, and at 29, he
might be a little less expensive than the slew of 25, 26 year old guys
coming off rookie deals. Meacham made less than Hixon or Ginn last
year, and hasn't caught more than 20 passes the last two years, but had
three 40+ rec seasons before that (cumulative 20 TD in that span).
*Josh Morgan might be interesting, if Washington's QB issues devalue
him enough to have him make much less than he did last year. He has size
at 6'1, 220.

I threw TEs in the discussion because Olsen is such an integral part of
the equation, and because Ben Hartsock is a free agent. While Hartsock
is essentially a lineman, he's also excellent at his job. The question
becomes, does the team fill that 2nd role with Hartsock, essentially
only a blocker, or do they throw it at a big, young draftee that can
contribute in both phases? My assumption is they do both - bring back
Hartsock, and attempt to push the 3rd job from the chiseled Brandon
Williams to potentially a later draft pick like Asante Cleveland, a 6'5,
260 lb Miami product.

I'll just outright assume that another free agent would be unexpected
at TE. If they wanted another receiving guy, Dante Rosario could return
inexpensively and graded out well by PFF (he was their 3rd rated TE,
behind Jimmy Graham and Hartsock, though keep in mind Hartsock's is 100%
blocking), and behind that, Giant Bear Pascoe (6'5, 280) is interesting.

They could go blue-chip, and grab a TE like Austin Serafian-Jenkins
(6'5, 275, Washington), but that seems unlikely. The team will put
minimal value into their backups, and by filling with a blocker like
Hartsock and a 3rd guy with receiving skill like Williams or similar,
it's an OK contingency plan.
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