Let’s face it.
Other than a stellar season from tight end Greg Olsen, who became the first in history at his position to record a third consecutive 1,000-yard season, the Carolina Panthers’ group of receivers certainly didn’t dazzle in 2016.
As quarterback Cam Newton tried to make the best of an offensive line riddled with injuries, most of his receivers were of little help. They struggled to separate from defensive backs and provide quick targets for Newton as a makeshift pocket collapsed around him again and again.
Carolina sank from a tie for third in the NFL in passing offense in 2015 to tied for No. 19 in 2016. Other than Ted Ginn Jr., who departed for New Orleans in free agency this spring, Carolina had no “burner” speed, and there were few threats on short to mid-length routes.
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In the draft and in free agency, the team set about correcting that, adding traditional slot receivers as well as multi-faceted, speedy players known for their attention to detail and ability to create space.
The Panthers also hired energetic new receivers coach Lance Taylor and added former slot star Jerricho Cotchery as an assistant who will specialize in developing the inside players.
After three years in Tampa Bay, receiver Russell Shepard was signed by Carolina in free agency this spring. The Panthers saw an up-and-comer in Shepard, whose receptions and targets increased every year during his time with the Buccaneers. They also saw a player who could fill the “gunner” role on special teams left vacant when receiver Philly Brown signed with Buffalo in free agency.
But in organized team activities and minicamp this spring, Shepard showed he’s ready for much more than a supplementary role.
Shepard ran with the first-team offense largely in the slot and at times on the outside, and made several big plays against an energetic and stifling defense. He also felt comfortable immediately in jawing with other players and putting a jolt into the offense.
To be decided in camp ...
Carolina added running back/receiving threat Christian McCaffrey with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft, then doubled down with receiving/running back threat Curtis Samuel with pick No. 40. That showed the team is serious about infusing speed.
McCaffrey and Samuel can both line up all over – including at running back – so at training camp in July and August it will be interesting to see the looks and disguises they offer the defense while moving at full speed. Carolina seemed to plod on offense last season, but that should change. Both players are known for their ability to make linebackers miss, which will extend the mid-range plays the team will likely use to get the ball out of Newton’s hands faster.
This is also a big season for receiver Devin Funchess, whom head coach Ron Rivera admitted this spring wasn’t utilized to his maximum ability last year (he had 23 catches for 371 yards, a 102-yard drop from 2015, and four touchdowns). Funchess is in the third year of his four-year rookie contract and needs to prove what he showed flashes of last year - that he is a dynamic and versatile option for Newton. He’ll get that chance.
Underdog to watch
Charlotte local Austin Duke was signed as an undrafted free agent, and is a long shot to make the 53-man roster in an overcrowded receivers room.
But Duke hardly looked like a rookie during spring workouts and wasted no time making a great impression on coaches and teammates – including Newton. Duke did just about everything for his team in college as a Charlotte 49er, and has the versatility and attitude the Panthers value.
Also keep an eye on ...
Kelvin Benjamin experienced a dropoff in performance from his 2014 rookie season to 2016, which may have been partially because he spent 2015 rehabbing a torn and then repaired ACL.
But after a few glaring mental mistakes and questions about his effort and attitude last season, 2017 will be a make-or-break year for the former Florida State phenom.
General manager Dave Gettleman picked up Benjamin’s $8.5 million fifth year option this spring, but it’s only guaranteed for injury. That means that Carolina could cut him before the start of the league year in 2018 and not owe him any money. Benjamin already made a poor impression just before spring workouts by reporting overweight, but there is ample time for him to turn things around and get some positive momentum in training camp.
Three bold predictions
▪ Duke makes the final roster, edging out fellow undrafted free agent Fred Ross.
▪ Motivated by viral response to his weight gain (and loss), and by the younger, faster players in the room, Benjamin matches his 1,000-yard rookie season.
▪ Aided by his new quick-route options in McCaffrey, Samuel and Shepard, Newton’s completion percentage spikes from a career low 52.9 percent in 2016 to a career-high 65 percent in 2017.