Share It

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Offenses Leaving Their Roots (Non-Panthers)

I'm always fascinated by coaching moves, finding them the very core of
how you build a team.

This isn't Panther related, by the way, so feel free to tune this out if
you want - I'm just kinda running off at the gums about leaguewide
schemes.

I was surprised by a couple of moves, where existing head coaches
deviated from their own offensive philosophies.

The surprising move to add a West Coast guy - Ben McAdoo - to the
Giants, where they'd built an offense around Eli Manning and where Tom
Coughlin himself had his own ideals of offense for the last 30 years,
and they certainly weren't West Coast.

Now, WCO isn't what it meant 30 years ago, either. It's not all base
offense, short hits. The Packers and Mike McCarthy have been
progressive. It makes some strategic sense, in a way. Manning threw
tons of INTs last year, they have no line and no running game; McAdoo's
likely to bring packaged plays and a very spread version of the WCO to a
team with a usually-accurate QB and a couple of good route runners at
WR.

It's just the idea of switching streams so late that's bizarre for
Coughlin. You just don't see that - you can see a change of coordinator
occasionally bring a different style of the same offense, but you just
don't see it happen where they fully change the scheme. Guys as often
get fired for not wanting to ditch what they have, even with a
coordinator change. It's even part of the "buddy system", or "good old
boy network" that comes up regarding hires that often contains charges
of nepotism and even racism, but sometimes is as simple as a coach keeps
a system because it's what he knows. His trusted associates know it
too. It fits.

But it's happening more lately, this ditching of scheme and history for
change.

The Ravens did the same - ditching their Coryell from Cam Cameron/David
Caldwell for the WCO of Gary Kubiak. Now, it's harder to say that John
Harbaugh has a given offensive scheme (and brother Jim is often
miscategorized as WCO). Harbaugh likely chose Coryell for the esoteric
reason of being able to pickup Cameron, but through Cameron and
Caldwell, they were one scheme. A little less change comes when a
defensive guy pushes for offensive scheme change, of course. It's not
like Coughlin eating his philosophies he's built a career on. But it's
change, nonetheless.

The fit is a little more bizarre, where Joe Flacco is a massive-armed
statue and Kubiak has tended to employ moving targets with a quick
release. I don't suggest Flacco is going to struggle hard to make a
living in a shorter scheme, but at first glance it's not an incredible
fit. That's a concern anytime you throw out the baby with the
bathwater - how do the existing pieces fit? You have to build in some
mis-fitting pieces, like giving Flacco those 18 yard skinny posts behind
all the short routes. You have to hope Torrey Smith can be precise
short. At least they have Ray Rice (for most of a season), already used
to carrying too much load, in the passing game.



The Jets did this last year, by picking up Marty Mornhinweg, a West
Coast guy who didn't go with Andy Reid to Kansas City. Reid promoted
his QBs coach, Doug Pederson, and picked up former assistant Brad
Childress to be, oddly, "Spread Game Analyst/Special Projects" coach,
and hired a Statistical Analyst, but doesn't employ a QBs coach, oddly
enough, and didn't want Mornhinweg.

Anyway, the Jets had been hardcore Coryell under Rex Ryan, who had been
under the Coryell regime of the Ravens, which just ended. In crisis
with its own OL and RB situation, add in QB issues and, well, WR issues
and TE issues to where it doesn't really matter, does it? But there's
nothing to build on, and I'm having a hard time seeing how the Jets'
offense won't be its undoing yet again. That's not because they changed
scheme, but you can't throw a new bandaid onto that mess and say it's
fixed.

I think some of my own apprehension from this ideal is watching crummy
teams - let's say, the Browns, for instance - go through regime after
regime, and with it, coordinator after coordinator that changes
everything up, every time. One year brings the WCO, the next Coryell,
then you have Ehrhart-Perkins. Or you might have two years of Coryell
but one might be very spread, one very pro style. You have different
resources to use with each - the prototypical big Coryell receiver might
struggle pretty heavily with the WCO, a WCO left tackle could struggle
pretty heavily with a lot of seven step drop Coryell. The Ehrhart
Perkins scheme is pretty radically different in the way that Bill
Belichick currently runs it, from the version that Charlie Weis or Jeff
Davidson ends up using it. So you see these offensive players twist in
the wind, never fully catching up.

Even the Alex Smith example, or Jason Campbell. Both were young QBs
going through a lot of coordinator change early in their career - and
some of that is warranted. Smith was drafted to McCarthy's WCO, before
McCarthy got his Green Bay reward. Norv Turner came, with Coryell, the
next year, and Smith wouldn't have the same coordinator for two years in
a row until 2011-12 under Harbaugh/Greg Roman. But Smith played under
the same offense from 2006 (a good year) through his trade to KC; Jim
Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye, and Mike Johnson were all Coryell.
Turner provided Martz with a lot of his know-how; Hostler had been
Turner's QBs coach when he was hired to San Diego. Raye and Johnson were
on-staff succession plays.

For the most part, Smith played in the same offense, and apparently
just suffered from being under crummy head coaching (and assistants).
But while the changes hurt, it wasn't the offense's fault.

Campbell, as well, had to undergo different coordinators, but again just
two offenses. Drafted under Joe Gibbs, who shuffled in a new coordinator
yearly but also had an associate head coach and assistant head coach and
various other nonsense titles for his offense, Campbell had three
coordinators; but it was the same offense. Jim Zorn's nonsense didn't
help, and he had an oddity forced on him - an owner hiring an outside
coach to push on him - at the end of his tenure, but he was WCO, as was
Mike Shanahan. He was shipped to Oakland, then went to Chicago and
Cincy, all Coryell.

So these guys had to learn two offenses, not the worst in the world -
but still, apparently jarring change. So, as I see skill players
struggle with regime change, I'm a little surprised by existing teams
shaking things up so much. Who knows if it'll work - my favorite NFL
statistic remains that half of the teams, every year, are below average
and there's only one true winner.

Wharton Retires

I've been lax on discussing Travelle Wharton's retirement. I don't
intend disrespect - he was good, and he served here in Carolina for a
long time (I believe, 4th most starts all time for the team?). It's a
shame to see another long-tenured player skating out early - officially,
the fourth OL to retire this offseason. Granted, only Wharton and
Jordan Gross are truly significant, and it's tough to know that the team
won't have them as their LT/LG combo.

Wharton's Carolina history makes for a nice story, and his time with the
Panthers is great - but we all know of all that.

On a team with a significant youth presence (finally - after hearing for
years about "building through the draft", there are finally significant
contributors under 27), I'm now somewhat concerned about the veteran
side of that presence. Leadership, experience. It's not that Carolina
doesn't have it - and I'm OK with the 2007 vintage of two of Carolina's
three offensive leaders this year (Greg Olsen, Ryan Kalil), or the
supplement that's added by Jason Avant (2006) and Jerricho Cotchery
(2004). I'm very comfortable with what the youth of Cam Newton and Luke
Kuechly provides, too.

But what you got with Wharton, compared to some of the youth? Just a
known steadiness. Wharton, like many others lost in the last two years
that came from the mid-2000s, were veteran soldiers, now somewhat
casualties to Carolina's salary cap woes. On average, would you find a
Travelle Wharton (metrically, one of the better guards last year
leaguewide) worth $1 million? Now add in the loyalty that comes with a
guy like that saying he's willing to play for you and only you. In an
NFL culture that's been within free agency for twenty years, staying
around is a big deal. It's undervalued.

That's not to say that's the only thing that Carolina used when choosing
not to consider Wharton for another year. Certainly, they wanted more
solidarity at guard than last year, where they used a full ten players.
Wharton's pretty dependable, but he's not young. This would be year 11.
And they've found some value in drafting linemen high and hoping they
can just fit in. They've done it in each of the last three years.

But for that amount, Wharton could've provided a lot of value. It also
provides the value of holding off on that pick for another year. I'm
not suggesting they should've definitely kept him, and not picked Trai
Turner. That pick seems to be working out just fine. I'm just
lamenting the lack of choice.

Similarly, I fully expected Dwan Edwards to be cut this year. $1.2
million savings, free and clear. Doesn't seem like a lot for a veteran
DT who would probably be starting most places, and honestly, only injury
took him off the start last year (since the team had Colin Cole starting
over the much more able Kawann Short - Short played twice the number of
snaps but never started). Edwards might return to starting, who knows,
but his presence is valuable and useful. For all the quality of the
outside rush, Edwards is the only one that can add the exprience of
having been a good NFL pass rusher inside. Cole certainly can't. DL
coach Eric Washington is top flight, but he hasn't been that guy as a
player either (which is fine). Edwards can teach the youth some things,
and still provide his snaps.

It's no different than how a young Mike Rucker learned from Reggie
White, who he credits for teaching him how to be a pro. Rucker taught
Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson. Johnson taught Greg Hardy. That's how
you hand down information. That's history, culture.

It's simply the idea that Carolina might not be able to afford $1.2
million for a veteran backup that impacts its best unit. Or choosing
not to afford $1 million for potentially its weakest.

I love the concepts Dave Gettleman has brought in regarding low-cost
mercenaries and slowly working its way out of cap hell. But there's
something to be said for a Travelle Wharton, with nothing left to prove,
willing to put the body on the line for not much money, almost out of
just loyalty.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Next Man Up

Carolina has done a solid job, despite somewhat a lack of depth at
times, of pulling a guy off the pile when needed. They quote last
year's 5 rookies playing on defense at one point, but you can't ignore
that Nate Chandler did a good job himself as a replacement on offense.

This year, so far, "next man up" is a philosophy of who's going to make
it to the 53 man roster in the event the team loses a guy that would
otherwise have been projected to play.

I have Tyler Gaffney as a definite, if my recent tirades haven't been
indicative of his absence. And today, Tre Boston was carted off, so
I'll talk about him as a possibility as well (this is his second injury
already, so who knows).

*For Gaffney, in principle, it leaves Kenjon Barner as a likely rostered
player, but barring him losing the KR job, he was projected anyway.
Gaffney, who I projected to play a lot of special teams, leaves open a
more interesting hole because of those special teams snaps.

I see that strengthening Richie Brockel's hold on a spot - and Brockel's
been tough to root out of a job anyway. Carolina would almost
certainly hold onto 4 TE now - Olsen, Dickson, Brockel, and a fight
between the rest (workout warrior Brandon Williams, blocking specialist
Mike McNeill, and DUI specialist DC Jefferson - who, despite internet
reports, is not the national director of Lambda Lambda Lambda, for those
of you paying attention). But, with the likelihood of only carrying
four backs, and Brockel somewhat counting as a fullback, you could sneak
an extra tight end on board (my guess would be Williams and McNeill -
Williams is raw but he'll play special teams).

Otherwise, that could be an extra WR; I expected them to keep 5. Or, it
could be an extra defender that plays special teams.

*Speaking of special teams, I don't know if Tre Boston will miss
significant time; I hope not.

But being carted off today, let's suggest it's possible. I had Carolina
holding five safeties, including him. I believe that, assuming they're
OK with Colin Jones playing backup FS (and it's been trending in that
direction), they would deal with just four. Certainly, that opens the
possibility of 5 CBs, which may be likely anyway; it wouldn't be the
worst to add a LB (I think they have their five, but don't have a 6th on
roster of worth- this extra LB is #7, so they definitely would need to
pickup a guy during cuts).

So, short answer, special teams for both. But, for now, room's
available to make a roster for those willing to work for it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Camp Observations

I'm just a guy, I don't go to practice.  So this is, essentially, from others' eyes, so take it for what it's worth.


*Kelvin Benjamin's been tearing it up.  That's a great sign - of course, plenty of big guys have ripped it up in camp.  But, Benjamin's no Walter Young.  I feel like, if he can contribute, he can really take advantage of the (apparently once a decade) refocus on pass interference and defensive holding calls.

With that said, I might have to revise what I think Benjamin can do, from a contribution standpoint. Most WRs don't break 700 snaps as a rookie, and most of those are first rounders. So far, KB has been running with the ones, and they appear ready to plug him in.

*The Tyler Gaffney thing is a bit short of heartbreaking.  Carolina can find other backs like that, absolutely, so it's not as if they stole a star.  But, it's nice to have someone who can pass block, play special teams, and carry a load as a runner and receiver.  Within the next two years, all of the players ahead of Gaffney other than Kenjon Barner will be gone, and Barner is a contributor, not a workhorse.  Carolina just doesn't have the easy margins of being able to throw away productive future players, so this hurts.

It has enough past picks into rededicating picks to previous blown picks (DT, WR, QB being its biggest, but RB has five picks since 2009 the year after they'd spent a 2nd #1 in three years - only Barner of the recent picks is on the roster), picks that could've been used on filling future needs instead of past ones (I don't think it's totally missed that DT, WR, QB have a sunnier disposition immediately after drafting #1s for each - I guess RB will need another high pick in two years or less; luckily, the 1st round RB is essentially extinct).

Relatedly, Carolina screwed up.  They picked up Fozzy Whitaker to replace him, but by not holding Gaffney until cuts, they lost him.  Unnecessarily so. Is Tom Nelson going to make the roster? Maybe. Whitaker?  Who knows.  They picked up a DT and it's not worth learning his name, they have 5 guys for 4 spots.  Truthfully, none of the players picked up around Gaffney's waiving were good enough.  Could've held onto the kid for a few weeks and not had this happen.

Dave Gettleman was the pro personnel guy in New York when this happened with Jake Ballard.  Ballard was essentially done, Gettleman had players at TE and didn't have to have Ballard, but still, it was a lesson to learn.

*Jonathan Stewart is a valuable commodity.  If he can show that soon, great.  But, without anything changing at all, it's hard to view his minor hamstring issue any better after losing Gaffney outright. If Stewart doesn't provide much, it's hard to see the sacrifice of Gaffney as having any good side at all.  I guess you can't blame Stewart, who trains hard and has more talent than any 2nd RB ever should, but it's been a while for anything positive and we're getting more Barry Foster out of this guy lately than Stephen Davis.  It's easy to be frustrated when that contributes to losing to a guy who could've taken over for him.

*I'm really starting to like essentially all the pickups from this offseason.  Benjamin's apparently ahead of schedule, Kony Ealy's showing fight, Trai Turner is starting, for what could be a pretty good top 3 in that draft.

But the vets?  Ed Dickson's getting very high marks. Thomas Decoud seems to be vocal off and on the field. Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery, and Tiquan Underwood aren't showing anything of concern, when the timing gets right, they should all be good contributors.

Still waiting to see much of Roman Harper.  Antoine Cason is apparently a starter, as he should be, and I guess it's good he's been quiet?  Don't know.  I think both have plenty to offer, however.


RB's A Mess; Gaffney's A Patriot

Tyler Gaffney's tenure as a Panther was short.

He didn't practice before camp because Stanford's on a quarter system instead of semester; why that matters, I don't know.  But, he finally got on the field for Fan Fest (held at the beginning of camp, not as a game-warmup a week ahead of preseason as normal), apparently tore his meniscus on his first play.

Season done.

So, in one of the dumber rules of the NFL, players have to be put through waivers when they're intended to go on injured reserve.

And the Patriots claimed him.  To keep his rights, they have to roster him; if they waive him, Carolina could reclaim him, but for now, consider him done.  And consider Bill Belichick a rotten prick, within the rules or not.


So, with Gaffney now a Pat, and Jonathan Stewart nursing a hamstring, Carolina has the exact backs it did last year.

Technically that's not fully true - they signed RB Fozzy Whitaker. 5'10, 200, Whitaker had 2 TDs for the Browns last year; he started 2 of 11 games with 28 carries (2.8 avg) and 21 rec (7.4 avg and the two scores).  Undrafted in 2012, he was on the Cardinals practice squad a few games and spent a few moments with the Chargers in '13 before the Browns.  Whitaker is fast, and when healthy for the Texas Longhorns, provided impact.   In 2011, he had a 42 yard average on kick returns.

But, I don't know that he's more than a scatback type, and I'll be damned if we didn't have a guy with a lot of talent not carrying the ball from scrimmage, so who knows.  Either way, no Stewart for a few weeks (minimum) and no Gaffney forever, that fairly well blows.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Stewart Laid Up, But Kugbila's Over

Camp reporting happened today, Thursday.  In a way, football season is upon us.

Cam Newton was cleared, and is ready; Amini Silatolu's ACL and Charles Godfrey's Achilles injury have been cleared, too.  But the good news ends there.


Jonathan Stewart injured his hamstring and is to be out a few weeks; it looks like he might not play the first preseason game, if I were to guess.  Tre Boston and De'Andre Pressley will start the season on the PUP list.
2013 4th rounder Ed Kugbila, however, needs back surgery; later today, he was released.   Seemingly chronically hurt, I imagine Dave Gettleman was just willing to be rid of the wait for him to be ready.

Kugbila's the first Gettleman pick to get the axe in any form, though that's a small sample size of two years (and smaller still given the number of picks he inherited).  The newcomers on the OL, Velasco and Matthews, both seem to have a shot at the roster now; it also makes sense that the team mentioned Velasco at guard.

The team suggested Garry Williams to be in the mix at tackle, where he should be (in my opinion).   That seems to set the depth chart as:

LT: Chandler/Bell/Williams
LG: Silatolu, Velasco
C: Kalil, Folkerts/Matthews
RG: Turner, (Chandler/Bell/Williams)
RT: Chandler/Bell/Williams

To that end, I'm suggesting the top two tackles will start, and the third will be in the mix at RG depending on the Trai Turner readiness.  Or, Garry Williams remains a contingency, just with a shot at OT.

Otherwise (if that wasn't enough for you), nothing much is happening.  But, things are happening.  It's time for football.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who Are These Panthers?

Every team has to find an identity. Last year's team had to find its
confidence, and in their own words, become relevant.

The offense has to build from the run, obviously. The toughness needed
for those yards inside were there greater than before, and Carolina gets
more pieces to make that work. You have to hope for Jonathan Stewart to
be available, Amini Silatolu is around again; rook Trai Turner looks
like the best RG Carolina's fielded in many years (since before Jeremy
Bridges went nuts on strippers). It has some issues at OT, mostly
unknowns. That's my issue right now, the spot I wish I could solve.

I know plenty of people are worried about receiver.

Those people don't know this team. The way last year's guys were used,
it looks like improvement to me. You have a whole group of receivers
competing for less money than just what Steve Smith would've cost - much
less adding the deals that Ted Ginn Jr and Brandon LaFell got. This
team could've spent twice what it did, to get no better.

Did they, in fact, get better with their current moves? That's to be
seen. Monetarily, the cost is lower; based on 2013 production, the cost
per TD and yard is lower, but production is up. Jerricho Cotchery won't
catch 10 TD this year, but he's still got a lot of value. Tiquan
Underwood had a strong '13 for a guy with no quarterback; 24/440/4 TD
from a specialist is pretty good. Jason Avant didn't fit the '13 Eagles
O, but there's no doubting him as a player in the slot. Kelvin Benjamin
appears, as raw as he is, to have the makings of a touchdown machine.

Related to the metrics and value, it appears Carolina bought low on
every player. Benjamin had some questions that brought him lower than
his talent; Cotchery was just a matter of age, I guess. Avant was used
poorly in an offense that seemed to provide a boost to every one else.
Underwood's year might'be been much greater with good QB play.

This is the part where I mention that Carolina was 30th in attempts, and
that the greatest amount of targets went to a returning player, TE Greg
Olsen. Olsen deserves his targets. Ron Rivera put up the sabermetric
argument about only needing 10 catches a game, underlining the idea that
Carolina doesn't ask a ton of their receivers.

What they needed was more of their attempts to become fruitful. By
running a good route and fitting the offense, and catching the ball when
it got there. Outside Benjamin, they have that, and I don't feel they
would've picked Benjamin if the drops (mostly off catch-and-run where he
didn't secure it) were a problem.

So, offensively, they're underdogs. Unsung heroes. The Unappreciated.
Greg Olsen, too, based on some recent comments. It's amazing nowadays
you can have a 75 catch TE fly under the radar. Please, please, please
sleep on this Carolina offense. With worse players last year, they
still put up 30 points on a number of teams before settling into a heck
of a Time Of Possession spree.


Defensively, you can't play the disrespect card. This is a unit that's
gotta have discipline - they have the talent, and the experience.
Discipline is the only hole I'm concerned with.

It's going to be a big year for pass interference, and so it's going to
be a big year for WRs. Seattle ruined the party - and refs let them
hold throughout the full season only to decide that 2014 was a new day.
So the new set of DBs - where, somehow and suddenly 2nd year Melvin
White is the incumbent player in the secondary who isn't new or moving
to a new role - have to have that discipline to not hold, no illegal
contact, no pass interference.

Otherwise, that identity is in place. Carolina is certain that you will
not run on them - or, you won't want to. You can pass, and you'll have
to pass, but they'll want to hurt you for that, too. Being 2nd in
defense might be a motivator, but most years, this is a team that
would've been first in run, pass, and scoring defense.


I would have a little concern about leadership - no Jordan Gross means
that Cam Newton, Greg Olsen have to be more vocal to match Ryan Kalil.
But that's OK. And honestly, without Gross, you also get no Steve
Smith, nobody on Carolina pulling that dirty nonsense we all loved, but
to be truthful as much heart as that provided, it was a distraction,
too.

So, I feel a bit of heart coming on. An identity of toughness, of
breaking wills that are unfortunate enough to be wrapped in enemy
colors. I just hope it comes early enough.

Two New Hog Mollies

Carolina added a pair of offensive linemen on the eve of training camp.

Fernando Velasco and Kevin Matthews add a bit of experience and possible
depth; the pair could be fighting for the backup center job or Velasco
could back guard.

Both have center experience - Velasco started 11 at center last year
after losing Marukice Pouncey; Velasco himself tore his Achilles after.
A 2008 grad of Georgia and former teammate of Charles Johnson, he played
from 08-12 with the Titans and has started 30 career games.

Matthews, son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, brother of top rookie
Jake Matthews, and related to the various Clay Matthews and rookie TE
Troy Niklaus (that's not all, there's another one, Mike, that's still at
Tx A&M), was an undrafted of the Titans through 2010, where his father
was line coach. Though he spent some time in camp with the Redskins in
'13, he bounced around the Titans roster the end of the year. He's
started 3 games and appeared in just under 20, some of which was backing
Velasco.

To make room, the team dropped backup center Jared Wheeler and LB Billy
Boyko.


The way I see this?

It could be an effort to push Brian Folkerts. The fourth best C in camp
last year, Folkerts was a Panther all year; when they dropped Geoff
Hangartner last year in camp, they lost their best backup at C. They
had to press Jeff Byers into service at RG, and Byers got hurt in record
time - honestly, I never even knew he was in the game, and then he was
gone. Folkerts isn't bad, but he isn't experienced.

There's also guard depth issues. Right about this time in the year is
when camp starts, obviously; there's generally a correlation between
that happening, and Chris Scott being well overweight. Scott played RG
for a time last year, and has struggled with conditioning; he wasn't
good when he played, but he has talent.

If I had to guess based on nothing but concern, Ed Kugbila might or
might not be ready, either. Amini Silatolu over at LG has been good
when healthy, but has finished on IR both of his years; so that leaves
Garry Williams, who's needed at both G and T for depth (and got hurt in
camp last year), and rookie Trai Turner. You can see why they dropped
a 3rd on Turner, when you see the potential of him being the last man
standing; that's without mentioning the three retirements from the line
(including Byers, Wharton, and Geoff Hangartner).

A stable set of backups at G and C are pretty essential as the last few
years have shown, but they would also allow Garry Williams to back or
compete at OT, where I believe he should be if Turner can provide a
solid RG and Silatolu can be durable.

Velasco, as a veteran, can add that. Starting 27 games in a row across
Tennessee and Pittsburgh, he has the ability to stabilize some things in
the middle when needed. I imagine the first shot at various jobs will
go to Silatolu and Turner or Williams, but he could be plugged in at G
and not lose a lot.

Matthews hasn't shown the ability to make a team as often, arguably with
family help in his corner. This could be his first opportunity to work
outside that family help in a while. But he has some starts under his
belt, and that has value.

These are back-of-the-roster moves (~50th best, not 80th - felt that
needed clarification since the team has all these camp hands). Either
could make the roster, neither should start in an ideal world, but you
have to have at least one guy like this, just in case.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Rookies

I'm not huge on prediction, so I'm still feeling out how to do this
part.

I've been pondering the rookies - since, to a point, the rookies have
been the best way of improving this team for years now (I can't remember
the last free agent that got a deal more than two years out of this
team, excepting voidables). They're the great x-factor, the unknown.
They're arguably the most exciting part of the team, year after year.
And this year might not have quite the impact as the prior years,
because of circumstance, in that rookie year. Last year, Star Lotulelei
and Kawann Short greatly improved the middle of the defense and each
provided 60% of snaps (even after Ron Rivera suggested 30% for each),
and AJ Klein provided about 600 total snaps including special teams,
with UDFAs pitching in greatly (Melvin White, Robert Lester, Wes Horton
leading the way). This year there may be fewer snaps to go around.


Kelvin Benjamin

I've been preaching patience with this kid. He's raw. There's no way
around it. Receivers start slow anyway, and this one's all puppy. He
has two years real experience, and though he has maturity (partially
because he's an old rookie), it's still going to be a while before he a
while before you just assume he'll be pulling a lot of wagon. There's a
natural talent for him, that bit about grabbing it out of thin air on
one play and out of a defender's hands on the next. Some of that is
going to be his own fault early on, when he lets a smaller man get
position on him or he doesn't put up a great route but the ball is still
coming.

I've stated this so much now on Benjamin versus the other big receivers
- they're efficient, and he's not. He offers this other thing. That's
how I see him possibly starting out as a specialist, a 3rd down guy and
goal type guy. I don't see him playing 1000 snaps. I see the
suggestions of him getting 700 yards/10 TD and I just can't buy. He's
possibly going to have high TD numbers given that he's essentially a
shoe-in to play on goal, but on the average second down, I don't know.
I think the average rookie is going to have a hard time getting playing
time with these receivers.

That might be a nutty concept to some. Absolutely, in the grand scheme
of things, Benjamin is a player with limitless potential and Jerricho
Cotchery and Jason Avant are short-term rentals. Some believe these two
to be third receivers at best, and Benjamin a potential star. The thing
is, the experience is the part that Cam Newton hasn't had. Outside
Steve Smith, the average Carolina receiver has been marginally more
experienced than he is. His most efficient time included a 3rd and 4th
with starting experience, although Ted Ginn isn't a high percentage
player.

These guys do the little things right in the same breath that Benjamin
is working on getting some of the big things right. And that's OK.
There's still plenty of room for him to contribute, plenty of need for
him to fill. He could surprise, and beating on CBs that will soon be
UPS drivers can't hurt (nor can being a TE-sized WR with the NFL's
apparent once-a-decade crackdown on pass interference) to start off
with. But Benjamin just isn't an out of the box #1 receiver. That's
foolish. Arguably, Sammy Watkins might be, Keenan Allen exceeded my
already heightened expectations last year, but I go back to AJ Green
before I really find another immediate workhorse.

I don't know. What I see from Benjamin is about 400-450 snaps, maybe 30
receptions, and I feel like I have to throw 4 TD at him. Next year, I
expect him to start. But for this year, I anticipate him as a guy who
plays a box-out isolation route on 3rd downs (maybe 2nd and long), plays
at the goal, and otherwise mimics anything the coaching staff sees on
tape from Jimmy Graham in the slot.


Kony Ealy

It's early on the Greg Hardy thing. Some sources say he won't see a
suspension until it clears a jury trial, some consider the jury trial an
appeal and the NFL doesn't hold things for appeals (you'd just appeal
for years). I see Ealy playing about 400 snaps as well - he can play
about 10 snaps a game inside, 10 outside, and I'll throw in that he'll
start a game when a guy gets nicked up. Assume 30 extra snaps per game
Hardy is hurt. I could see about 20 tackles, 5 sacks, arbitrarily
I'll throw in a batted ball or two and 2 FF. He's obviously primed to
start for next year but 400 snaps is pretty good given the ends Carolina
currently has.

Trai Turner

1000 snaps, full on starter. Carolina needed this guy, a mauler with
attitude, at RG and we were (are?) focused on the issues at OT instead.
RG was a complete disaster last year and that was including absorbing
the LG issue with Travelle Wharton. Turner will learn to clean it up as
the season goes along. They've never been shy throwing a ready rookie
at the OL. Turner should improve the run game and they'll deal with his
pass snaps same as Amini Silatolu.

Tre Boston

I guess he's going to be ready for the start of camp with the sports
hernia issue, but hard to say. They have Thomas Decoud, and they've
been pushing Colin Jones to be ready as well. I see them keeping Boston
active for special teams , and that's a ton of snaps, but I don't know
that he plays safety this year unless something happens ahead of him.
He can flip to SS as well, but they have Robert Lester backing that.

Bene Benwikere

Right now, I see him concentrating on just nickel, and that's plenty for
a rookie. It might be dependent on Charles Godfrey's achilles, but
Benwikere has this job longterm. I see him logging 200 snaps minimum,
and if he fill that role all year, it's 600+. I'll throw 25 tackles
and 2 picks at him, since I am just guessing Godfrey starts the season
slow.

Tyler Gaffney

I'm essentially expecting he's just waiting for his moment on offense,
and should be a workhorse in preseason. 250 special teams snaps to
start with, and maybe 30 carries total through the year. But eventually
they'll need him and he could pop out a few surprises on you at that
point.

UDFAs

I don't see anyone making the roster, but the opportunity's greatest for
Denicos Allen, the short-stack LB from Michigan State. I don't know if
he'll ever be more than a special teamer, but he should be fantastic
there, and if there's a place you can succeed as a 5'11 LB, it's behind
this front. Maybe David Foucalt makes the practice squad despite being
a pretty raw OT.




So? I see one starter, three specialists, and two special teamers.
Carolina didn't have a ton of jobs open, and you could argue they
neglected one. This should be a solid draft class once 2015 hits and at
least two more are starters, but for now, your rookies are going to have
to scrap to find playing time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The City Of Angels And Its Football Ghosts

I saw that the league was considering forcing the hand of The LA Issue by possibly pushing itself into the stadium business.  It makes some sense, since they're determined to have a franchise there.

The NFL from a business sense can do much more than any single franchise.  The problem becomes, does the NFL landlord treat that team differently than the other 31?   Does this become, to a point, a league-owned franchise?

It makes sense to have an NFL facility in the LA area, past the franchise, too. Super Bowls, for instance.  Another college bowl game. Maybe steal a Major Conference championship, like the Pac-12, steal a couple major concerts from the Hollywood Bowl.  I'm sure they'll try to force the Pro Bowl in there, if this stadium exists.

LA?  I get it.  Compared to, say, New York (whose teams play in Jersey, but hey, that West Side stadium idea was terrible; Brooklyn or Queens might've made some sense, but I'm drifting away from a point), which is a quite compact fanbase with two teams, LA is both geographically and sentimentally a massive area.  

But geographical fan-ships seem less important than in the past.  I started following Carolina because it was somewhat local, and starting around the time I truly threw my own shoulder into football a bit.  Older fans always had that Redskins/Dolphins thing, I guess, allegiances because of the same things that unwittingly force a person to choose loyalty to a brand of liquor, truck, or cigarette (or, put gently, dog whistle) because Daddy or Granddaddy did the same.   In retrospect, being a fan because you live in an area isn't much less archaic, but here I am.

Nonetheless, getting LA a team (or anywhere in Europe) is about providing a new fan something to call his/her own.  No more and no less.  But for those same reasons, it's so much easier to be a fan of something anywhere.  When I started following Carolina, the mechanations of the hows and whys of their team building came from the local newspapers. That's what you had.  Occasionally a national magazine would touch on something specific to your team or otherwise touch your interest.  For example, coinciding with Carolina's 1996 success, Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z did a series on a 1997 franchise startover that caused me to spend weeks on my own, thanks to this new nonsense called the internet.  Once I realized there was draft info on the internet, the whole thing got easier.  You could follow teams not near you, you could learn about players you'd never seen.

And that was before there was a league TV station, and a billion ESPN/Fox, and so on, regional channels.

It's easy enough now that, had it all existed in 1995, it might've been as easy to follow Buffalo.

Of course, the league's been trying to shoehorn someone into LA since the Rams and Raiders left.   Carolina even put that feeler out as bait to get Charlotte to throw some cash at them for needed renovations (truth be told, Charlotte got an NFL stadium for, up to that point, just tax breaks.  They didn't throw out any of the supposed $360 million needed for a private stadium or franchise fee, they didn't do anything else, compared to the two full stadiums they've built for the NBA), but more famously, the Jaguars and Vikings have been rumored hard.  After Ralph Wilson passed, it's been speculated hard about Buffalo.  In a few years, I'm sure, the Titans and Ravens, two teams to move since Carolina finished its stadium, will be on deck to push for new money or else.

Not coincidentally, the Vikings have gotten a new stadium, and a Super Bowl.  It follows of course, that over time the NFL would push a future Super Bowl to teams who help secure a new stadium, which of course throws Buffalo overboard.


I assumed, incorrectly at this point, that the easiest suitor was Oakland.  Al Davis was dead, and it made sense.  Hue Jackson even went off the rails and traded for USC and Fresno's own Carson Palmer.  Son Mark Davis, I guess, is the thing that'll keep that from happening.  

But, LA's lost three teams already (including the Chargers).  In an age where you can follow anyone anywhere, what does it matter?

Position Prognosis: Special Teams

A year ago, the kickers were struggling, the team had lost out
(reportedly) on some bigger names for the coaching vacancy, and the only
sure thing was Ted Ginn returning punts.

This year, that one sure thing is gone, but so much increased over time.

To start with coaching, Richard Rodgers has the respect and trust of all
involved, and the somewhat puzzling but welcome addition of Bruce
Dehaven has paid dividends.

K Graham Gano brought his game up a good deal with an 88.9% FG
percentage, led the league with a 77.8% touchback percentage, and
otherwise had a career year. He was 24-27, including making 6 FG from
50 yards out. He's always had a lot of leg, but he learned control.

That same narrative went for 2nd year P Brad Nortman. Another kid with
a big leg, Nortman was bit of a mess in '12, but learned how to throw a
little control into it last year. His gross average was 47.8, a team
record and 4th in the league; his 41.6 net was also a team record, and
5th in the NFL. Profootballfocus.com called him the best punter when
punting inside his own 40 (when you're punting to an open field), and he
was NFC Special Teams player of the month last year.

It was a career year for both players. Snapper JJ Jansen was perfect
for the year, as well.

With Ginn gone, Kenjon Barner has the inside shot at returning kicks and
punts, though he has to hold onto the ball. Tiquan Underwood has some
KR skill, as does Kealoha Pilares.



Of course, it takes more than just specialists to make a special teams
unit. Gone is Jordan Senn, a stalwart for years in the kicking game,
but there's plenty to go around.

Jason Williams, who blocked a punt, looks to take on the lead role. DE
Mario Addison and TE/FB Richie Brockel provide some of the heavy lifting
as big bodies that can tackle or block; as does starting LB Chase
Blackburn and his backup, AJ Klein. Colin Jones is the team's top
gunner on punt team, often flanked by Melvin White (though rarely but
hilariously by Greg Hardy). Young safeties Robert Lester and Tre Boston
figure to play expanded roles, and I wouldn't bet against Tyler Gaffney
contributing.

Eyes will be on TEs Brandon Williams, Ed Dickson, and Mike McNeill to
see if any can provide any help on special teams as well, especially if
any of them want Brockel's job (Ben Hartsock played 20% of snaps as
well).

If Josh Norman wants an extended look at CB, he might want to be willing
to play more than 13% of snaps; since Domenik Hixon played almost 20% of
snaps, one of the WRs will have to look at contributing a bit. Since
neither Jason Avant nor Jerricho Cotchery put more than 2% of available
ST snaps on the field, I'm guessing that will have to come from
Underwood (who played 5% of ST snaps last year) or maybe whichever of
the 5th best guys has something to add. I have a hard time buying that
Kelvin Benjamin will be running down kicks, though.

It's a unit that has to remain at least as strong as last year, for
Carolina to grow. You can't play ball control with a chump Special
Teams unit.

Position Prognosis: RB

The final positional review comes for RB - possibly as talented as any
other position, certainly as deep, and yet in a period of limbo.

Carolina and it's ball control, time of possession attack on offense
relies fairly heavily on the backs - 7th in attempts compared to 30th in
passes. While some of that comes from having a running quarterback
(22% of the team's attempts, whether called or not; 28% of its yards),
you can't base your running game on a quarterback.

It's been the Deangelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart show since 2008, with
the only break in that being for injury. That seems likely to continue
past this year - its seventh year in a row, Williams' contract voids
after '15 and Stewart is cuttable around that point. Regarding that
bit about injury, Stewart had his worst year, playing in six games and
recording one start. Started the year on PUP and was activated, only
get hurt after a few more games.

That left Williams carrying a lot of load, and the load-bearing fullback
Mike Tolbert being relief in both rushes and comedy. So far, Stewart
seems to be ready, and for Carolina to return to an elite level rushing
attack (3rd in yards, 2011; 9th in 2012; 11th in '13), it needs him to
be out there. For Williams to make the occasional homerun, he can't
take on quite as many of the hard carries; you could argue Tolbert would
be fresher as well, as he doesn't really do well with more than 12
touches a game.

As well, the team has thrown picks at young players at RB, hoping to
pave a little way for the future.


To start with the fullbacks, Tolbert is all you could ask for. A solid
blocker, a very good outlet receiver; a Pro Bowler. He runs possibly
with more power than anyone on the roster, and the .gifs of him running
over the average Falcon or Buc aren't any less entertaining than his TD
dances. He's a goal line specialist, which shows in his RB-high 5 TDs
last year (2nd in rushing to Newton's 6). His 3.6 yards per attempt?
Excusable when you see where his carries are. He's a flying brick and
if I could field a quartet of 5'9, 260 lb RBs that were clones of
Tolbert's, I'd run the ball 45 times. Tolbert finished with 361 rush
yards and 184 in the passing game.

Behind him, you get part-time FB/TE Richie Brockel - a solid blocker who
never really gets the ball (1 carry, 1 yard/1 rec 12 yards, and a
fumble) but is a TE who can simply play the position a bit; you have a
more pure FB in Michael Zordich, an undrafted from Penn State (and son
of the DB by the same name - Cards/Jets/Eagles). He has a good thump to
him, and played a little LB in college as well. That's everything the
team is throwing at FB.


At RB - you have Williams, entering his ninth year (that alone might
make you feel a little older yourself). It looked like his career was
nose-diving in 2012 - Jonathan Stewart was signed and named starter,
improbably, and immediately started his journey of getting hurt, the
only thing that really saved Williams (along with a heavy deal). A late
2012 burst against the legendarily bad Saints defense re-cemented his
place, and he's done allright with it. Without his steady 2013 (843
yards, 201 carries; that's 4.2 per; 3 TDs, including a game-winner of 43
yards against San Francisco), Carolina doesn't have its year. Tolbert
can only carry so much load, as can Newton. Like the other backs,
Williams only really gets used as a passing threat with a screen - often
on packaged plays. His 26 rec for 333 and one score gives him a total
of 4 TDs and 1176 yards from scrimmage, not bad for a 30 year old RB.

But, again, you have to have Tolbert and Stewart, minimim, for this to
keep up. 31 isn't kind to a RB. He's now absorbed 1370 carries, which
could've been even worse; he averages 12.3 per game, which most backs of
his stature may have absorbed 20-24, obviously double that. As well,
even a complimentary back would have a lot more than 1.6 receptions a
game career (more on that later). Williams has two years on his
contract before voiding, and who knows if he'll last through two more
200 carry seasons? That's not a huge amount of carries, but it's a good
bit at 30 years old.

Stewart? Who knows. He has to be healthy. The time off has to have
done him good, and there's nothing you can say about him getting cut at
the sideline to get re-hurt. No way around it. It's just bad luck.
He's another player that has two years (he'll be 29 after 2015's
finished, and still low miles, but so expensive), and somewhere in
there, they'll have to lean on him a bit more. He's been a good player,
but since being signed, he's given the team almost nothing. He's a
tremendously talented player that you can't help but root for, but to
take things to the next level, he has to be involved.

Then there's the youth.

Kenjon Barner turned out not to be Darren Sproles. As a rookie, turned
out, he was just a spread-offense guy who was small, fumbled a bit in
preseason, and then got hurt. His few carries as a pro in real
competition were a mess, going down on first contact and running
upright. I was losing hope in Barner. I recently read an article on
him (
http://www.si.com/nfl/2014/07/15/carolina-panthers-kenjon-barner-training ) that provided some insight to his work, and hopefully that helps. Might just be fluff, and God only knows I've caught enough about "Player X was working to overcome injury/adversity/gained weight/lost weight/trained like this" in the offseason to give false hope. But getting bigger, and training like a pro, is a good thing to hear out of a 2nd year.

Barner's not as shifty as Sproles, and the truth is, while he can be
good in space, outside the screen game he's not a player that's good
from scrimmage yet. Carolina doesn't ask any back to split wide much,
where Barner might be as useful; he certainly doesn't get the space to
work in that Sproles does. This just isn't that offense. Ted Ginn's
departure as a KR and PR means Barner has some room to spread into a
return job, but he's not really going to help you out with the rest of
special teams, and that's a lot to ask of a 4th RB (if you count
Tolbert).

And that's where Tyler Gaffney comes in. A gym rat, film rat, do
everything back, Gaffney's this year's new late-round back, possibly a
bargain since he left for a year to play baseball (otherwise, a guy with
junior experience in a pro style system and 1700 yards/21 TD would be
higher in the draft. A more solid 5'11, 227, Gaffney's just athletic
enough, but won't have the growing pains Barner did. He trains like a
pro, has already been in this system, and can run between the tackles.
The team singled him out for his pass blocking, suggesting it will make
things a lot easier in preseason. So, he can do a lot Barner hasn't
shown he can do.

The team could use both (Barner would be a good home run type backup to
Gaffney's possibly uninspiring but workmanlike rushing) and will
probably make room for all. But the back two, in the regular season,
won't get much play this year. In an ideal world, DW gets 13 carries,
Stewart 10, Tolbert a total of 10 touches, and Barner returns balls on
special teams while Gaffney runs them down. That's how Zordich
probably doesn't sniff this roster, and that might give a little life to
the backup FB and TE Brockel (if the numbers game doesn't also get him).



I know that Carolina's close to the vest ideals mean quick passes and
being very QB-friendly. But related to that, the backs carry almost no
weight in the passing game, a very significant portion in screens. Per
profootballfocus.com, Newton had 5th highest percentage of screens at 6%
of attempts; and yet non-screen situations, RBs were targeted only 9.7%,
4th lowest. A lot of that's in packaged plays; maybe some of that's
missing Stewart, so the carries had to be the priority.

if Stewart is healthy, maybe he gets more passes (history says no, 1.4
rec/game, only boosted by 2011's 47 receptions). Or Tolbert, playing a
more ancillary role, gets more passes as an outlet. I know the offense
can sustain it, as the mid-90s saw FB Larry Centers catch 100 passes in
a season. I don't want Carolina to be quite as easy to read, but it can
use the backs more. They do carry a load already, but there's room for
them to get you 6 yards on 2nd down (Newton's worst down) just as easily
as they can get you 4.2 rushing on first.

There's no doubt they have enough to carry a load. They depth and
redundancy. It's coming at a high cost, so they have to pull that
weight yet again.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Position Prognosis: LB

It's really hard to imagine a team strength gaining significantly in
ability and credability, but in '13, Carolina's LBs did just that.

It's not as if 2012 was awful. So far any year with Luke Kuechly and
Thomas Davis has been fantastic. But now, Kuechly is your reigning
Defensive Player of The Year, and while Davis was a Pro Bowl snub, tons
of analysts have him as the second best true OLB behind fellow snub
Lavonte David.

It's safe to say that Carolina has one of the best, most instinctive,
playmaking pairs at LB in the league, so let's move on and talk about
the rest of the unit. Kuechly's pass coverage improved - it still has a
little room - but the impact plays were just off the charts this past
year for both players.


Chase Blackburn is the strongside linebacker, and the guy that comes off
the field. Davis and Kuechly plaed 97.5% of snaps apiece, for what it's
worth, and Blackburn 20%. Adding in the opening day starter, Jon Beason
(remember that guy?), who took the first two games' worth of snaps at
62, and AJ Klein, who filled in for three starts? The SLBs only played
400 snaps throughout the year, or roughly 40%. That's the league now -
in shotgun 75% of the time, and a nickel corner is as much a starter as
the 3rd LB. Drayton Florence, who wasn't even with the team for a few
weeks and wasn't one of the top two CBs, played almost 60% of snaps, to
finish that thought.

But the value provided goes past the line of scrimmage. Blackburn
played 38% of special teams snaps despite his injury; Klein played 61%.
Backup Jason Williams played right at 50%. The now departed Jordan Senn
provided 70%, giving 4 LBs out of the top 8 in ST snaps logged. That
quartet provided about 2.2 seasons worth of special teams snaps along
with that third of a season of defense.

Nonetheless, that third LB job is important, along with being depth for
that top pair. It's critical to win those base defense snaps, and with
a front as strong as Carolina's 7, SLB is often the weak link, and you
can't afford too weak a link in there. The SLB combo didn't disappoint
- there are times where Blackburn isn't as good against the pass, and
that's to be expected. You don't get a ton of rush from this group,
though Klein is a good blitzer. What you get, defensively, is a lot of
instinct and knowledge of how the base offense is going to work, and
good execution.


Blackburn is, for all real purposes, the backup MLB. Klein was an ILB
in college, and a bit of a steal as a 5th rounder. Either could be
called upon to fill the top guys' shoes. Blackburn's veteran experience
provides the ability to hang with the top defenders, and another veteran
voice in the film room.

Klein looks to be a hyper-instinctive ILB, and he has solid athleticism.
He got hung the label "little Keek" for looking a little too much like
Kuechly during preseason, but when he stepped up at the end of the
season, he was starting to earn some of that. He might or might not be
athletic compared to the 4.4 40 of Davis (and Kuechly's 4.58 feels slow
compared to his playing speed), but he's a player who could fill in at
WLB or MLB and not be a liability. It's a great luxury, when you're a
good front like Carolina's, to be able to replenish with such a late
pick.

Williams, looking to pickup Senn's slack as the top ST LB, originally
came over in 2010 and started two games. Since then, he's been a
special teamer, and a very good one. His blocked punt against NY Jets
made a massive difference in that game.

That's the top 5 - and Carolina will keep at least six, if not seven.
They may look at cutdowns for another special teamer, but the first shot
comes from the back end of the roster.

Ben Jacobs was a '13 camp hand who made the practice squad; he has solid
size at 6'4, 245. DJ Smith is an AppState player who played in 22 games
for Green Bay, and didn't do much for the Texans last year. Billy Boyko
is a 2nd year who was in camp with Oakland last year.

Of the rookies, you have Florida Atlantic's Adarius Glanton, an
undersized prospect, and the fire hydrant sized Denicos Allen (5'11,
225). Allen was a three time All-Big10 selection whose height is a
legitimate concern, but he's a hardcore football player with good speed
and decent athleticism. He seems ideal for special teams and is the
type of player that could, in a pinch, do well behind Carolina's strong
front.

Projecting that out, it's an open competition past the top 5, but I'll
guess on 7 staying including Jacobs and Allen.

Two more to go - RB and Special Teams. SO whether you're enjoying this
meandering series, just suffering through, or just scrolling past, it's
almost over.

Re: Position Prognosis: CB, S

I totally neglected the 3rd string guys when talking secondary, and
wanted to rectify that. Dealing with the starters and the nickel
combatants is crucial, but it's not the full picture.

Colin Jones, for instance, is a critical special teamer that plays in
essentially all phases. A missile that runs a sub-4.4 40, Jones is the
gunner on punt team and is essentially a lock to make the team. Last
preseasaon, Jones started showing more aptitude for free safety, and had
two picks in a game. It's clear they're continuing to develop that
side, and while they have Tre' Boston, the team's 4th rounder, Jones
will have plenty of looks in preseason as well.

Boston is a vocal FS with good athleticism and length, and while he's
studious, he has to be careful of not freelancing himself. His
outspoken personality is one that has to shine through at the right time
- it's the difference between being a respected competitor and being a
mouthy rookie.

Behind all that, Anderson Russell is a guy who's spent since the back
quarter of 2012 with the team, and had some good special teams hits when
playing in preseason last year.


As well, I neglected James Dockery at CB. With the top 3 outside
players and two nickel players possible at CB, Dockery seems the first
man outside the bubble, but he's hung around for years now and is always
in the mix. He has good length and ball skills, and is another player
in the mix at the outside CB spots. I don't know if Bene Benwikere or
the possibly still ailing Charles Godfrey will play much outside in
preseason, so there might be a lot of room to make impact out there for
Dockery.

There aren't likely to be any UDFA surprises compared to last year, when
the spotlight was on Melvin White and Robert Lester almost directly
after signing. Carrington Bynum of Texas is the only other rookie.

Of the street guys, De'Quan Menzie has slot experience at CB. A 5th
rounder in '12 by KC, he was a two year Alabama star after JuCo, and got
hurt early in the process there.

Carolina's only carrying the six safeties - the three mentioned above,
likely starters Decoud and Harper, and likely first off the bench guy
Robert Lester. They hold nine corners.

Five safeties are a lock for the roster, assuming everyone is healthy;
it could be up to five corners, too. But the lynchpin of the corner
conversation is on Godfrey's health; if he starts the season on PUP, it
won't look as good for him and Benwikere gets a 6-9 week trial as the
slot by default.

The rest is on whether Norman can play within the system, or if Dockery
climbs the ladder over him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Position Prognosis: QB

In the wake of the Greg Hardy nonsense, let's take a stab at an easy
position group, quarterback.

Way back, the idea of a running quarterback at all used to provide me a
bit of fear.

It's easy to capture the imagination of the 'freebie' bit that a runner
gives you. It's easier now than three years ago, but 15 years ago,
Dameyune Craig was all the rage. All I wanted was a guy who would
execute the offense properly, and Craig just didn't look like that.
Inconsistent from one snap to the next, the backup battle of Craig v/s
Jeff Lewis held people's attention while the brittle Steve Beuerlein
handled his own business, running the offense. If it weren't for
Steve's age (and the eventual issues between he and George Seifert that
got him cut), it wouldn't have mattered, but for most years since, the
backup QB has possibly mattered more than it should (often disastrously,
from Randy Fasani to David Carr, the sad reminder that exactly one QB
backup has exceeded expectations since the already-expeerienced
Beuerlein - Matt Moore. Remember that guy?).


You have Cam Newton, and then a traditional QB backing him. That's how
it's always been. It's not that anyone's not familiar with Newton, and
outside knowing how he'll play with the ankle fixed, there's not much to
say. Derek Anderson, once a Pro Bowler in this offense, and seemingly
snakebit by being around Brady Quinn just like most things Quinn brings
his dark cloud of misery around, has always been enough as a backup, and
I'll get on Anderson a bit more later.

This year, Carolina reached out in free agency and changed that up a
bit.

Having held Jimmy Clausen (a bystander casualty of the Quinn misery,
perhaps) on IR last year, it was somewhat expected that Clausen wouldn't
make the '13 team anyway, and come '14 as a free agency, he's a backup
Bear fighting for the 2nd spot with Jordan Palmer.

Enter Joe Webb.

Since the start of Cam Newton's second year, there's been this urge.
Remember when Newton was just a guy who ran around? That magical dive
against Cincy in preseason, his scramble TDs and occasional QB draw
early in '11? Then it became a part of the offense, and later in 2011
the read option became a legitimate NFL play. It became officially
adopted by about 20% of teams in 2012, and since it's been a pretty flat
curve (Buffalo, I guess, adopted it, certainly Chip Kelly in Philly, but
even with Philly's success, there's no real push in '14 to further it
league-wide).

Nonetheless, since '12, watching Newton run that part of the offense,
there's been a push to draft a backup with a similar skill set to Cam
Newton. Problematically, you don't realize how unrealistic it is to
find a guy who fits most of the criteria of (6'5, 240 lb QB), (QB who
runs 4.6 or so), (QB that can run and throw), (QB with massive arm).
There was one guy who fit most of that bill in last year's draft, Logan
Thomas, and despite more playing time, he was far too raw for that.
Meanwhile, fans push guys like Tajh Boyd.

The most famous of the "we have to have more than one Cam Newton"
sweepstakes? Russell Wilson.
Drafted a few picks after Jacksonville picked a punter (yes, that
happened), Wilson was the first new-breed mobile quarterback to win a
Super Bowl. Since he played for three years at NC State, a lot of the
locals here adopt him even though he left for baseball and Wisconsin
(some of which isn't totally his fault). A ridiculously accurate
Wisconsin QB under Paul Chryst's Coryell O, he made sense. But a 3rd or
4th for a backup was a lot to ask.

It's also a lot to ask for a player who's being designed to run a small
part of the offense. Now, that said, it's not like Wilson the prospect
was a run-only QB. He has enough arm, and I don't know if I really
breached the "can he overcome his height" thing, but I don't remember
arguing he couldn't be an NFL QB (and I argued that on Tim Tebow, better
at winning than throwing, and mystifyingly, not that good at running the
read option sometimes, often missing his reads). I don't know that
anyone saw Wilson winning a ring in year 2, though it's hard to say he's
as much of the "why" as Newton in Carolina.

Nonetheless - the idea of a running backup had a more limited value to
me than to others.

This year, we'll see how that goes. Webb is a running quarterback.
6'4, 230, so he has some size. He clicked in faster than Newton at
combine, a year earlier. In a bit of a nod toward "we're kinda loading
up for preseason", in the same way that the team stated RB Tyler
Gaffney's pass blocking will give other players a better look in
preseason, I guess Webb will be running the read option in exhibitions.

I don't know how good he'll be - he was an OK passer at
Alabama-Birmingham, and hasn't had much time to play pro QB. As a
rookie, he was a QB - he was 15/26 for 129, 2 INT in a relief role, and
started the next week with 17/26, 195 yards (no TD/INT); he had a
rushing score in each game.

in '11, after the Vikings threw Christian Polder on the pile, Webb was a
solid backup, but ended up being pushed to WR by '12 fulltime. An adept
runner who seems worth about 60 yards/1 TD on average when playing QB,
he adds that ability. I don't know how strong his arm is, but he seems
setup to take the dumpoff most times. I don't know how well he does at
reading the defense, either.


I still believe that running the offense is more critical than more
easily running a small part of the offense. A Derek Anderson Carolina
Panthers team, good or bad, probably executes what's needed from
Carolina more (make the third down stuff happen, be efficient, but test
the D deep now and again, manage the game). That's still a team that
helps the defense out more.

The team gave Anderson a two year deal for the first time since he'd
shown up here; it's been year to year prior. Webb won't test Anderson
for #2 and I don't think that's how things should go. There's no
doubt that Webb is a talented player who can become something better
than he's been, too.

So, that said, I don't know if I believe the team will keep all three
QBs. But preseason should be interesting. You'll get to see more of
the full offense in preseason, and it's not like running the read option
a few more times will give anything away.

I'm also excited to see a little Matt Blanchard. An accurate 6'3, 225
lb backup, he spent time on the practice squad last year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hardy Guilty

Greg Hardy was found guilty of assault and communicating threats this evening, stemming from a May 13 altercation with former girlfriend Nicole Holder.

The sentence, expected to be appealed, is a suspended 60 day sentence and 18 months probation.  Whether the sentence stands, there would be expected to be a suspension of at least a few games.


Hardy - One Year?

The idea that Greg Hardy wouldn't be given a longterm deal seemed clear
once he was franchised.

But the thing I don't fully understand, however, is why franchise him in
the first place?

Is the team looking at 2014 as a make or break year? I doubt it, as
2013 bought them time and they're as likely to have cap issues now as
they will in two years. So why pay Hardy $13 million?

I guess there's the remaining ideal that he can be signed next year, and
that's essentially what they're buying for $13 million. Time. Next
year, it appears, they'll be choosing from the "potentially cuttable but
probably living up to his contract" stylings of Charles Johnson, or the
younger, less stable but higher upside Hardy. To further that, as I did
the math earlier today, Johnson's deal makes him not only cuttable, but
worth re-signing if desired, since most of his bonus proration ends
after the '15 season.

Of course, over time, more things have pushed Hardy to be less likely to
get that deal this season. Drafting Kony Ealy makes it roughly $10
million cheaper to field a right end, and Kony isn't on trial for
assault concurrent with the writing of this article (his former
girlfriend is apparently testifying right now).

The team could go without either, or phase out Johnson a year or two
after Hardy by not altering his contract and allowing him to walk after
'15, too. No clue. The lack of certainty is concerning to me, but with
the interior defense that Carolina has, down the road having neither but
including Ealy and possibly a speedier rusher? They'll be OK with that.

A Fool's Exercise: The 2015 NFL Draft

I was talking with someone about the '15 draft, adding those next
pieces. I like the team-building stuff year-round, so while this has
zero to do with any reality and essentially 100% of what would happen
between now and May 2015 (unless they just keep moving it back, who
knows...throw it in June next year?) has yet to happen.

So, projecting next year's draft is completely foolish, given that the
things that create the team's needs, the things that define the upcoming
prospects, the team's record, and so on? They haven't happened yet.

At best, what's available? Current needs projected on future contracts.

The hot topic is, of course, WR. Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood
are on inexpensive two year deals, and Jason Avant one year. I don't
think there's a reason they would choose to not have Avant on board,
though there's some level of duplicity between he and Cotchery. It's
simplest to suggest Cotchery stays. Underwood and Avant are more
variable, where I find Avant more valuable and (pre-camp, anyway) seems
to be more relied upon, and yet Underwood's the guy signed two years.
Nonetheless, it makes sense to add a rookie again, to build on what they
have with Kelvin Benjamin (which, of course, "what they have" should be
more clear by then).

In that vein, the next prospect drafted at WR will have some obvious
characteristics: good hands, routes seem to be a thing, excepting
Benjamin, that are clear with the new guys, and Benjamin himself has his
moments. But, more speed, more run after the catch ability, those seem
to be more important than size for the other receiver. Here are a
couple guys that fit the bill, if you take out the top 1-3 guys that
might be out of reach for Carolina.

*Stefon Diggs, Maryland - a 6', 195 lb blazer (4.38)
*Jaleen Strong, Az St - 6'4, 205, so he has the size you might want but
is quick enough to make plays.
*Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri? - he appears to be in flux (was with
Missouri, dismissed, and currently shows as an Oklahoma Sooner). The
6'6, 220 lb player is possibly as talented as any in the group. Since
he changed schools, I don't know if he'll play this year, or how that
works, but he's a very strong receiver with enough quickness to make it
happen. Doesn't excuse his drug arrests, but lost his father at 9 and
was adopted years later.
*Nelson Agholor, USC - a little smaller (6', 185), but similar version
of Marquise Lee (can't stand comparisons but it's good shorthand here)
*Rashad Greene, FSU - another little guy (6', 180), notable for being
better on the field than Benjamin. Great routes and hands.

Obviously, there's a reason to feel shaky about OT as well. G, there's
plenty to deal with. C, God willing, will be Ryan Kalil's for another 5
years or so (time flies, this is Ryan's 8th year already). But OT isn't
settled. Nate Chandler is signed for three years, but who knows how
good he'll be? Byron Bell isn't signed past the year.

Luckily, it's a great year for tackles again. Excluding what appear to
be the top two (Cam Erving, FSU; Andrus Peat, Stanford), there's still a
lot of talent. In no particular order (since I don't know any better
anyway):

*La'El Collins, LSU - like Trai Turner, knows the O, pro ready. Some
have him as a G or RT in the pros, I don't subscribe to the idea of a
LT-RT-G hierarchy based on talent. He's a good lineman.
*Cedric Ogbuehi, Tx A&M - what a good program for OTs lately. Very
athletic technician.
*Corey Robinson, SoCar - king-sized at 6'8, 345. Raw.
*Brandon Scherff, Iowa - an athletic 6'5, 320, and a punishing drive
blocker, Scherff fits the bill greatest given recent Panther drafts.


The team stuffed a pick into both CB and S in '14. Adding to Robert
Lester and Melvin White, there's a little youth at DB now. Could still
use a pick at CB, though, with Antoine Cason a free agent and not a lot
of talent behind him. Charles Godfrey becomes cuttable as well.
There's always an Ohio St CB to pick, and this year's is Doran Grant.
LSU's Jalen Mills can play S or CB.

DE comes with the inevitable cut from somewhere - is it letting Greg
Hardy walk, or is it cutting Charles Johnson? The need for a pick here
remains low with Kony Ealy on board, but it's hard to project next year
and not think of it.

If it's a Johnson cut, and it could be - he his contract wasn't altered
at all in 2014, despite being an easy target - 2015 would be the next to
final year on his deal. $6 million of his proration has to count in '15
at this point anyway, even if cut now - so that's a fact, no matter
what. It's the last year of his 5 year proration, so that part doesn't
accelerate. A $1.42 million per year proration started in '13, with '15,
16 left to count. Technically, that '15 amount counts no matter what.

So while Johnson's '15 proration would count $7.42 million and you'd
have to add the $1.42M for '16, if the '15 amount counts no matter what,
the net hit on the cap is savings of $10 million (including workout
bonus) of '15 and $11 million in '16, for a cost of $1.42 million
accelerated bonus.

On the other hand, if the '15 amounts count anyway, and by '16 you're
more or less done with the guarantees, you could easily add onto his
deal if it were reasonable. For a bit under $10 million per year, you
could make '15, '16 more reasonable and not add much more in guarantees
with an extension. I don't know if it would be enough to be able to
keep both he and Hardy, but with Johnson already receiving his
guarantees and having more consistent production, he's probably the more
reasonable 'get'.

Or who knows, maybe they don't keep either. Last year you could get
Jared Allen, Demarcus Ware or Justin Tuck for not a lot of money.




I don't think the team will ever part with Thomas Davis, but I could see
the team throwing AJ Klein at WLB if there's ever a Davis-less Panther
team (and that would be a sad day). Klein's athletic enough, and
they're not asking him to be Derrick Brooks, just to grab that side of
the field. If that did happen, and Chase Blackburn would be around year
10 and a free agent, it might make sense to dip into FA for another guy
with experience, and then draft another later-round LB to wreak havoc.





As far as coaching goes, the succession plan seems simple enough. Ron
Rivera would have to do something really awful to be dropped after one
year into an extension, so that's an unlikely concern. If Sean
McDermott moved on, obviously it's Steve Wilks' turn. If Mike Shula
were to be let go, which I don't see happening, John Ramsdell seems the
smart choice, though you never know with Ricky Proehl. Ramsdell isn't
ancient, but I don't know if he'd want to take on a coordinator job at
this point.

Past Godfrey, I don't know who might make sense to cut salary.
Obviously, the Cam Newton contract remains a situation. Luke Kuechly
becomes signable next year as well, and that's not going to be cheap,
either. Though the team locked up Graham Gano, it would be smart to
pitch in on Brad Nortman's contract to keep the punter on board cheaply
by next year. Greg Olsen, now hitting 30, isn't on board past 2015, and
while there are void years on his deal, I think it would be smart to add
to his contract.

Deangelo Williams' final year I believe is '15, after which his deal
voids; he is cheap in salary and difficult to cut in '15 if they moved
it up a year, so that seems unlikely. Jonathan Stewart is still not
cuttable until 2016.

Free agents, outside Bell, Avant, Cason, include Garry Williams,
Blackburn, Ed Dickson, and a ton of guys who won't make the team.

So, that's a rough draft of various things that might happen if the 2014
season happened but was completely unmemorable and no player gained or
lost significant status within the team structure. It's totally
useless, but was on my mind.

Position Prognosis: OL

I'm attempting to cover the team by unit as a ramp-up toward training
camp; as well, yesterday I covered the ideals of the Vertical Set in
pass protection to give you an idea of what this team's working with.

Clearly, the issues start on the outside, but I want to cover inside
out. That's where the best news is, anyway.

Center gives you Ryan Kalil, a captain and Pro Bowler. Can't ask for
more here. Right now, it looks like '13 surprise Brian Folkerts is the
backup - a UDFA for New Orleans, Folkerts has done a good job staying in
the NFC South, spending time on Tampa's practice squad in '12 and then
making it to camp in Carolina last year. Folkerts played center for
two series against Minnesota, and appeared in ten games total, but was
one of the very few to not be cursed by the RG issues.

Relatedly, the other center, former Kalil teammate Jeff Byers retired
after last season, along with historical backup center Geoff Hangartner.

At guard, the team gets a couple shots in the arm by returning mauler
Amini Silatolu and by drafting Trai Turner. Cut from the same cloth,
these two nasty, large, and mobile linemen appear to be the starters;
Silatolu has played well but has to stay healthy. Turner came out
possibly a year too early, but has first round type talent and thanks to
his LSU background, should be pro-ready. He's a strong guy who plays
angry and appears to be very similar to Silatolu - mobile and unhappy if
he doesn't embarass you - but with more tools to get it done.

The rest gets a little more iffy. Nate Chandler vacates RG for OT,
Chris Scott appears out of shape so far, Ed Kugbila gets his second
chance to be healthy, and it's hard to say if Garry Williams will be at
tackle or guard. Travelle Wharton has, for all real purposes, retired,
too.

Which brings us to tackle, where Jordan Gross retired. Yep, that's four
players retiring on one line. The team put money into returning OT
Byron Bell, and after not drafting a single tackle, extended Chandler,
who hasn't been an offensive lineman for more than a season.
Chandler's initial offensive position had been OT before the need at RG
came up, and solid play at guard gave him first shot at starting at OT.

My guess is, Williams is the 3rd OT. They haven't spoken of Williams'
role, but he has tackle experience. The team lacks anyone else with
much time there, and they have three solid guards if they're all
healthy. Given that Bell and Chandler can both play either side, in
theory, it's easier to have a backup who only plays RT.

I also have to imagine, the team will be looking at cutdowns to find a
good, young forgotten player at OT. I count 8 players I'd expect to
make it, players I've mentioned above - and I don't see anyone else to
really be worth it. Most teams dress 8 or 9, and keep 9 or 10.

They have dark horse candidates to make it - Andrew McDonald has cancer.
Derek Dennis was somewhat well considered in the 2012 draft. David
Foucault is a massive Canadian tackle who can provide some raw talent.
Otherwise, I think Carolina's gonna be in the market for at least one
lineman from cutdowns.


It's not a terrible unit. It would definitely be better had they kept
Gross, or had the money to put into Wharton in a non-emergency form.
But they don't, and they found more necessity to upgrade RG than worry
of the tackle issues. It's a bit of a gamble, one that I think will
improve the running game. Whether it equates to a disaster in pass
protection is harder to say. I don't know if it will be that bad, but
it certainly won't be anything dominating. If the guards are as good as
advertised, the run game should return to a top 7 unit, at least.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Vertical Set and Carolina's Pass Protection

One of the biggest offensive changes of 2013 went fully unnoticed, with
a single blip against Buffalo its only real telltale sign.

Carolina, like essentially the whole league, used a kick-slide technique
with their tackles, a modestly reacting set of steps designed to push
the contain rusher outward. It's the essence of what makes a passing
pocket. It's stanrard.

And yet, last year, Carolina's tackles went to the Vertical Set. It's
a staple of many spread type teams, and certainly more reactive - it
resets the line of scrimmage to, if I were to guess, about as far as the
OT is willing to retreat , where he anchors and strikes the defender.
The rusher, on the other hand, has less time to react, can't get his
hands on the OT until late, and therefore there's even less time to make
a move. You really can't be beaten outside easily, the inside is
compact, and the OT has leverage.

In theory.

Byron Bell struggled heavily with the vertical set against Mario
Williams, which is what got it noticed in the first place. Eventually
he settled down - and Jordan Gross rode it to a Pro Bowl. For what it's
worth, the strategy can work - both Gross and Bell rated very, very high
with two seconds to throw (source:
https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2014/04/21/pass-blocking-by-time-to-throw/ ). Gross excelled throughout, rating high deeper in time, but nonetheless, the Vertical Set can provide you a little extra time.

2014 will show whether it's a matter of the talent or the scheme, since
Gross and Travelle Wharton (rated high as well at guard) are gone. Bell
and Nate Chandler are the top two, though it's hard to say where Garry
Williams ends up.

I'll fully cover the line soon, possibly tomorrow, but I found the
Vertical Set quite interesting, and more info can be found at various
college football strategy sites, such as:
*http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com/2010/03/vertical-set.html
*coachbdud.blogspot.com/2011/02/vertical-set.html
*http://www.mycoachonline.com/football/pass-blocking-vertical-set.lasso

This is another reason to further the argument that the LT isn't
necessarily the most important lineman. The center makes the calls,
and the two tackles hold the edges. I can't find one more critical than
the others.


I'll push that a step further - Carolina was in shotgun about 74.5% of
the time last year, and that was considered "average" by statisticians
Profootballfocus.com. With the gun, you're not taking these huge
sideways strides to get to throwing position. So if your shoulders are
generally more square, the entire time, is there really a 'blind side'
at all?

Position Prognosis: DE, DT

There's more turmoil on the DL than you might anticipate from the casual
observer. Put plainly, Carolina's thrown so much at the position, and
honestly they had done so well before 2013; they just spent that much
more, and got it right. After years of failure providing something in
absence of Kris Jenkins, the 2013 double-down of Star Lotulelei and
Kawann Short was just what they needed. The pair of rookies placed the
defense in the stratosphere, and created the best DL in football.

Of course, it's not quite that stable, and it's not sustainable. The
DL's genesis came from the massive re-signing of Charles Johnson, still
the biggest contract in team history. And that contract's not getting
smaller. Greg Hardy's the team's franchise player (its first since
Julius Peppers' fiasco in 2009, in a way a genesis of the current
strength). That leaves 1/6th of the cap in two ends.

For 2014, that group remains together. The future, of course, is harder
to say. For now, let's leave that to the accountants.

There's no doubting the strength. Johnson, a powerful edge rusher with
great inside moves and ability against the run, has been a consistent
force since 2010, earning the massive contract in 2011 and somehow
meeting its expectations. Hardy became a starter in '11, but didn't
start to show his full self until a year later. His 15 sacks in '13
were the most by a Panther in a decade, and his size and strength can't
be under-estimated either. Together it's a nearly unstoppable set of
ends that, given the strength at DT, only makes them more powerful as a
unit.

Lotulelei is a starter; Short, an early-2013 reserve, played more as
time went along, but still gave way to starter Colin Cole. Cole, who
is primarily a NT, would play outside at the 3-technique at times, but
was ill-suited to the task as he's not a penetrator. That left
Lotulelei outside more, which is more than fine; he's explosive at both.
Coming into the year, the intent was for 2012 pickup Dwan Edwards to
be the other starter; after injury, he came back as a reserve and didn't
play as much as Short over time. That Edwards' $1.2 million salary
remains as a backup shows the effort Carolina throws into the DL; in a
way, Edwards went from the team's best DT in '12 to its fourth best in
'13. The anomaly to a point, nonetheless, is Cole. The worst graded of
the four, he still started, probably as an effort to ensure the
run-stopping he provides.

The team also has somewhat high hopes for Canadian Linden Gaydosh, the
#1 overall pick with the CFL in '13. Gaydosh remains a raw prospect,
but the team seems invested. Unlikely to break the top 4 this year,
Gaydosh's role as extraneous depth probably makes him a minimal
contributor destined for the practice squad again.

Nonetheless, there's a correlation between teams that control between
the tackles and success. While Carolina's continued to have good edge
rushing, this is the first year in a decade that it's had significant
control of the middle and that doesn't appear to be changing anytime
soon.

Behind the ends, of course, Carolina threw a 2nd round pick into
projected first-rounder Kony Ealy. With the long-term costs of having
two very highly paid ends, it's a nice luxury to have a year or two for
Ealy to learn. Since Hardy would often play inside out of necessity,
they find Ealy to be the piece that can relieve that role instead.
Ealy, in true Carolina fashion, is a big end who should be a good
two-phase defender, not just an edge rusher or one-move guy feeding off
the rest of the defense.

The heavy lifter in the backups historically has been Mario Addison.
He takes on the next most snaps, and he's the special teamer. Former
4th Frank Alexander is a former Big 12 Player of the Year but hasn't
shown much, and has been suspended to start the year; that seems to put
his job in peril. '13 UDFA Wes Horton is a better rusher, and the pair
played a similar number of snaps. It seems that puts Horton as more
likely to be the 4th guy, and the only thing that would keep 5 ends
longterm would include Ealy's ability to rush inside from keeping a 5th
DT instead. That could save Alexander, who'll start the season on the
suspended list.

Carolina saw a big dropoff with Johnson injured mid-season, so depth has
to continue to step up. Ealy, Addison, and Horton have to be ready to
play to keep this a defensive cornerstone.

Longterm, the concern is whether the team will keep the more consistent
Johnson or the higher ceiling of Hardy. They have an eye on returning
Loeulelei and possibly Short as well, though those decisions are still
two years off at minimum. At the very worst, the pair of young DTs
along with Ealy's expected development means this should still be a team
strength for a long time.

For now, this remains a strength. Possibly its zenith given more
experience for the youth along with the addition of Ealy boosting the
ends. What it will look like next year, of course, is to be seen, but
for now this is as good as you can possibly expect out of a defensive
front. Pairing with the team's LBs, sustained success seems the only
outcome for the front seven.

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.