This time last year Steve Smith was cleaning out his locker and selling his suite at Bank of America Stadium, with all signs pointing to the Pro Bowler's time with the Panthers coming to an end.
Enter Cam Newton.
Nearly 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns later, Smith seems revitalized and ready to lead a young corps of wide receivers as they develop around their Rookie of the Year quarterback.
Waiting in the wings are a pair of 2010 draft picks in Brandon Lafell and David Gettis who've both shown potential in becoming solid NFL wideouts.
Gettis holds probably the most promise of any receiver on the Panthers not named Steve Smith.
He's got size—at 6'3", 217 lbs he stands as the tallest receiver on the roster. He's got speed—the Baylor product was a two-time state champion in the 400-meter, setting a high school state record of 45.84 seconds in the event. And he's shown he can handle the pressures of starting at the NFL level—beating out Lafell in 2010 for the number two spot and holding it all season long.
While his 2010 stat line of 508 yards on 37 catches and three touchdowns doesn't look that impressive, remember it was with a shameful carousel of quarterbacks in the leagues worst offense. We weren't able to see just what he could do with Cam Newton under center, as a preseason ACL injury sidelined him for the entire season.
However, if the 24-year-old can improve upon his rookie season in any way, he'll be a player to look out for in 2012.
Lafell is a little more of a work in progress. Despite being taken four rounds before Gettis, he struggled early and has only been able to earn spot starts in the first two seasons of his career. However, he's certainly taken advantage of those opportunities and has made tremendous strides.
He doesn't quite have Gettis' speed or size, but the LSU product plays physical, can get open and has a knack for making some spectacular catches.
He's drawn comparisons to fellow LSU product Dwayne Bowe, and saw his downfield production increase significantly in his sophomore season—jumping from 12.3 yards per catch to 17.0.
The two of them are both solid options at the number two and three slot, but it remains to be seen if either can rise up to become a true number one.
There isn't much behind the top three, but with strong options at tight end with Shockey and Olsen, there doesn't need to be. Legedu Naanee gives them some solid depth (although he might not be back next season), Kealoha Pilares is more of a special teams threat than anything else, and that's about it.
I've seen a lot of people out on the blogosphere hoping Justin Blackmon falls to the Panthers (it won't happen), but I wouldn't be against taking someone in the later rounds of a draft loaded with wide receiver depth.
While I think Blackmon is the only one who'll come in and be a stud immediately, there are plenty of developmental guys like Rishard Matthews or Ryan Broyles that the Panthers can take a look at.
With all the holes on defense, I wouldn't want to waste a high draft pick on any skill players. Plus, Steve Smith isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He showed last season that he's got a couple seasons left in him before we should go looking for his heir.
2011 Performance Grade: B
Steve Smith had a spectacular season, and Lafell/Naanee really stepped up in the absence of Gettis. I can't wait to see how this young corps develops in the coming years.
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