For the first time in 14 seasons, the Carolina Panthers will take the field without wide receiver Steve Smith, the all-time team leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, to name just a few records. Smith, now with the Baltimore Ravens, was a Pro-Bowl player his first season with the Panthers after being taken 74th overall in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft.
Smith’s release set the tone for the wide receiving corps as the team only retained one of their top four wide receivers from 2013, tight end Greg Olsen. It could be argued that Carolina is a run-first team, but you wouldn’t have much of an argument.
Despite having a two-headed running back monster in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, guided by 2013 Pro-Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert, the Panthers were one of the worst running teams in the league. Stewart was injured most of the year, but regardless of injuries, a duo of Williams and Tolbert should have been enough to keep Carolina out of the bottom of the league in attempts (352), yards (1,391) and touchdowns (4).
The highest ranking rushing metric the Panthers boasted was a mediocre 4.0 yards per attempt average, which could be completely attributed to Tolbert if one were so inclined. Additionally, the Panthers five rushing fumbles came with the fewest attempts in the league, which makes them one of the more fumble-prone teams in the NFL.
But before you assume the Panthers must suddenly be a pass-first team in the wake of quarterback Cam Newton’s blossoming super stardom, be warned: it doesn’t get much better in the air. The Carolina Panthers were fourth in the league in receptions in 2013 (375) yet 22nd in receiving yards (3,853), for one of the worst averages in the league (10.3). The Panthers didn’t rank higher than 22nd in any other receiving statistic last season.
Also alarming is the Panthers’ big play ability. In passing or rushing plays over 20 and/or 40 yards, Carolina ranks in the bottom third of the league and only had five plays over 40 yards passing or rushing. In other words, not only do the Carolina Panthers need help, they need big play help. Suddenly the business aspect of the Steve Smith situation becomes even more apparent considering Smith was the team’s best option for either plays or big plays.
Despite the “success” the team enjoyed in the air relative to the ground, the Panthers clearly saw the situation slightly differently as they cleaned house with the receiving corps, but retained Carolina’s backfield heading into next season.
Considering the depth at running back and Smith’s age, the Panthers made the right choice. Ted Ginn Jr., a free agent at the end of the 2013 season and now with the Arizona Cardinals, was a very serviceable wide receiver and excellent returner, but the price tag was too high and his skill set too untested to make Ginn Jr. the Panther’s number one receiver heading into 2014. On the other hand, Brandon LaFell was also a very serviceable receiver, but his numbers and inconsistency were enough for the team to let him sign with the New England Patriots.
The Panthers decided to clean house with their wide receivers and sought help elsewhere, signing Jerricho Cotchery from the Pittsburgh Steelers; Cotchery was excellent in the slot for Pittsburgh last season and scored more touchdowns than Smith and LaFell combined (10) in 2013.
Despite the signing of Cotchery it’s clear the Carolina Panthers will be drafting a wide receiver in the 2014 NFL draft, and as has been suggested before on isportsweb.com, the Panthers should move up in the draft to do so, essentially securing one of the many talented wide receivers in the upcoming draft.
Whether the Carolina Panthers end up drafting a lineman, a defensive back, or a wide receiver, per the recent suggestions of general manager David Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera, the choice should be rewarded immediately as this is one of the strongest draft classes on paper in years. However, if the Panthers want to make an immediate impact on offense, the choice is clear.
The offensive line is solid with many returning starters from 2013 and resigned key reserves. The secondary is in decent shape with the return of Charles Godfrey and the signing of Roman Harper and Antoine Cason. Considering the Panthers’ front seven, the secondary should be the least of the team’s worries. What does worry the Panthers is their offensive production, especially in the air, and that can be rectified instantly in the upcoming draft; Carolina couldn’t have picked a better time for such a need.
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