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Monday, July 14, 2014

Position Prognosis: WR

Taking the weekend off, it's time to get back at position prognoses for
the '14 Panthers, and feeling like hitting the heavy lifting today, I'll
take on the controversial spot of the year - wide receiver.

Carolina had minimal turnover at the top of WR for the last four years,
but had constant refreshing on the 3rd guy over that time. Around Steve
Smith and Brandon LaFell came various parts that worked in different
ways, and the best of which was last year's - Ted Ginn. And behind
that, an almost endless line of 3rd-6th round also-rans taking up backup
space. LaFell a 3rd himself, Carolina threw 5 total picks at WRs in
that range in the draft in that four years, and only LaFell worked out.
Hitting on any of those picks makes 2014's growing pains less traumatic.

In the timeline of it all, the team had everyone as a free agent
excepting Smith; fans focused hard on the idea of Smith and Hakeem
Nicks. In the meantime, Ginn quickly snapped up a lucrative deal with
Arizona; Domenik Hixon, the guy I thought could've pushed LaFell but
provided a minimal amount of snaps, skated to Chicago. I can't honestly
remember if they offered LaFell a new deal before they cut Smith, but I
want to say they did it after Smith had been cut (or put on the
market?). I was honestly dismayed at that - why try to keep LaFell out
of that group?

And that's the thing about this group. When Smith went down, LaFell
went from looking like a growing receiver to a guy who couldn't carry
the load. Ginn looked like the more capable starter of the two.
LaFell's always been a big receiver that didn't play to his size - a
more capable Donald Hayes - who could surprise you a little with the
speed, but wasn't going to out-muscle anyone for the ball or play
biggest when needed (put a pin in that thought). As that stood, he was
also the defacto slot player, and he just wasn't reliable enough there
(definitely keep that in mind, too).

So, with a failed last-ditch effort at retaining LaFell and being the
also-ran in the Nicks sweepstakes, itself a dicey proposition with the
season he'd just had, Carolina had essentially nothing. In the first
real crack in the armor since a strong 2013, GM Dave Gettleman started
talking up Marvin McNutt and Tarvares King, not the ideal thing for the
average fan to hear.

But, then they started working. As if the Panthers were waiting for a
specific moment to act (or simply waiting for their ship to come in, as
they later explained), they made like the end of Trading Places and
started buying low. Jerricho Cotchery was the "play bigger than he is"
big man with sure hands and good routes. Tiquan Underwood became the
speed guy. Then, they snatched up the do-everything Jason Avant, the
glue that apparently held together Deshaun Jackson (himself the target
of Carolina fans' lust for a moment this offseason). Each of them
efficient route runners, with good hands and a calm demeanor, three
things that the old guard often ran short on.

So, as I've beaten to a pulp on this particular soapbox, it made some
sense. Carolina ran a lot of shorter route stuff - harder when you pass
short and run, because you'll never get the safety out of the box - but
better for Cam Newton's development, and definitely better for time of
possession and your defense. This unit was much more ready for that
style of ball, and as Ron Rivera's words rang out about "ten
receptions", the clear understatement there wasn't that they continue to
catch 10 passes as a group per game, but that they do more with their
targets. Run a good route, get the ball in your hands.

It's a philosophy that most don't appreciate right now, as they simply
crunch the numbers and see a trio of former #3 receivers and think there
are no starters. Granted, the starters are still to be determined.

Honestly, the roles are still to be, as well. But, to go with
efficiency, Cotchery and Avant are soldiers - leaders, honestly - who'll
bring people along, teach them the way. Something Carolina's been
missing for roughly forever.

At any rate, as the draft approached, you could argue for or against any
of the various WRs. Silently, I somewhat expected the position to be
neglected. Three vets? It made sense, compared to OT or CB in a way,
to bypass it or come up with yet another 4th round developmental. The
4th best WR in Carolina has played about 10-13% of snaps, and that's not
a lot of time to improve upon.

So, as they read the name Kelvin Benjamin in the first, it was sensory
overload.

Carolina's only drafted one WR in the first, and we all try to forget
about Rae Carruth if we can. The next pair behind that historically,
you get Muhsin Muhammad and Smith; that pair has done some heavy
lifting. I don't know if either player is as physically gifted as
Benjamin, this king-sized answer to "how do we find something that can
still catch Cam when he's throwing high?". He only has two years
experience, and while he's mature and played in a pro-style, the truth
is no one knows fully where he's at. But, if Brandon LaFell isn't
physical enough for you, Kelvin Benjamin is right up your alley. In a
league looking to bust-up the Seattle Holding Company (I hear they
prefer "Legion of Doom") and blatant pass interference throughout,
Benjamin's the perfect remedy - a guy you have to hold to out-muscle.

But, he's raw. He'll go up for a ball and grab it over you, but his
routes aren't good enough to escape that situation as much as you want.
He played all over the place at FSU, including the slot, a concept that
might be best used when Carolina wants to mimic a split-out TE like
Jimmy Graham (who has some weight on KB, but otherwise, the numbers are
very similar). For right now, other than that, I expect him at the X
receiver working the sideline and abusing DBs.

The only true reason four receivers might play more? Benjamin.
Honestly, there are heavy expectations on the kid and he's just not
experienced. That doesn't doom him, but it means patience at least.
That's how you end up with a guy playing more than 10% of snaps at WR
and making an impact. Carolina's somewhat primed on that, since the
two slot-type guys will be relied upon and Benjamin and Underwood play
such disparate roles.

I don't know whether it'll be Cotchery, a typical slot type player, or
Avant in the slot. Avant had more slot yards in the last four than all
but three receivers (all much more famous - Colston, Cruz, Welker), so
I'll assume Cotchery to start, and Avant/Underwood are feathered in
while Benjamin is initially situational.

I understand what they're doing. I have no clue if it'll work, but
Carolina was 29th in pass yards last year with an efficient threat at
QB. Being more efficient seems to make sense. Whether there's a #1
here, or if that matters, is hard to say. This could be a team, for
instance, you could play Man-Free against and just stack the box.
There's no threat here yet. But, if you do that against Cam Newton,
well, last two teams to do that were the first two teams to do that, and
I don't know if you want him putting up 400 yards and running around
everywhere.

Prognosis? To be determined, but so far, I'm a believer. This unit
will do what's needed. They won't be the 2000 Rams, but that's not
what's expected.
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