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Carolina Panthers: Predicting the Depth Chart at Wide Receiver

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Carolina Panthers: Predicting the Depth Chart at Wide Receiver
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Steve Smith breaks away from Jabari Greer to score a touchdown against the Saints.

The Carolina Panthers have no less than 14 wide receivers on their active 90-man roster—15 if you count Nelson Rosario as a wide receiver as they have on NFL.com, though he is listed as a tight end on the Panthers official site—and several players are set to duke it out for roster spots and positions on the depth chart once training camp begins.

Carolina will likely keep six receivers on its 53-man opening day roster and a couple more on the practice squad, which means more than a handful of players who caught passes from Cam Newton, Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen in minicamps and organized team activities (OTAs) throughout the spring will not wear the Panthers helmet this fall.

Here is my prediction for the Carolina Panthers' depth chart at wide receiver in 2012.

 

The Starters

Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell will be the Carolina Panthers' opening-day starters at wide receiver.

Smith went to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in 2011 after catching 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season playing with Cam Newton at quarterback. 

There was speculation, via ESPN.com, in the 2011 offseason that Smith would be traded after totaling just 554 yards on 46 catches in 2010—a by-product of playing with then-rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen—but he decided to re-sign with Carolina after the Panthers drafted Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.

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Smith responded with one of the best overall seasons of his career.

LaFell is a newcomer to the starting lineup after spending most of the 2011 season playing behind Legedu Naanee, who has since been released and signed by the Miami Dolphins.

LaFell outperformed Naanee last season, catching 36 passes for 613 yards and three touchdowns—including a franchise-record 91-yard scoring catch-and-run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 16—to Naanee's 44 grabs for 467 yards and only one score (h/t panthers.com).

LaFell is out to prove that he can be an impact player after the Panthers passed on opportunities to sign Jacoby Jones and Plaxico Burress earlier in the offseason.

 

Second-Teamers

David Gettis and Kealoha Pilares are the top candidates to fill in for Smith and LaFell should either player go down or need a breather at some point during a game this season.

Gettis had a productive rookie campaign in 2010 (h/t ESPN.com) despite playing with Clausen in the NFL's least productive offense (h/t NFL.com), but he missed his second season after tearing his ACL in training camp last summer (h/t the Associated Press, ESPN.com).

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Gettis started 13 games in his rookie season and he was expected to start for the Panthers in 2011 before his injury.

Gettis has the size (6'3", 216 pounds) and speed to be a deep threat for Carolina this fall and he will get plenty of playing time this season when the Panthers go to three and four-wide receiver sets.

Gettis will challenge LaFell for the No. 2 wide receiver position in camp this year, though LaFell has the edge after playing a full season with Newton at the helm and coming on strong late last season.

Pilares was Carolina's starting kick returner as a rookie last season and he showed off his breakaway speed on a 101-yard kickoff return against the Detroit Lions.

Pilares is primarily a slot-receiver with reliable hands and the ability to pick up yardage after the catch much like the New England Patriots' Wes Welker.

Pilares had a super-productive senior season at Hawaii with 88 catches for 1,306 yards and 15 touchdowns (h/t NBCsports.com) and I expect him to have a breakout preseason a la Victor Cruz in 2010 that will put him on everyone's radar (h/t ProFootballTalk).

 

Three Deep

Joe Adams (R) and Armanti Edwards will fill out the Panthers' active wide receiver positions on opening day.

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Adams, whose primary role will be returning punts after leading the nation with four scoring punt returns in 2011, could actually see quite a bit of playing time at the slot position this season if he proves he can be a dependable receiver.

The rookie receiver from Arkansas caught 54 passes for 652 yards and three touchdowns last season (h/t cfbstats.com), but he did not always have the most dependable hands and he dropped a couple of big ones in the Sugar Bowl earlier this year (h/t Flint Harris, holyturf.com).

Edwards is coming off of a dreadful season returning punts and he is likely in his last season with the Panthers, and possibly his last season in the NFL.

Unless he is able to convert the speed and athleticism he displayed during his legendary quarterbacking career at Appalachian State (h/t Tommy Bowman, Winston-Salem Journal) into productivity as a pro wide receiver, Edwards' best shot at earning a living playing football could be north of the border (h/t Pat Yasinskas, ESPN.com).

 

Practice Squad

Seyi Ajirotutu and Darvin Adams will claim practice squad positions with the Panthers at the start of the 2012 season.

Ajirotutu had four catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns in a game against the Houston Texans after being pulled up from the San Diego Chargers' practice squad in 2010, and Panthers coach Ron Rivera brought him to Charlotte last season after the Chargers released him (h/t Kevin Acee, Sporting News).

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Rivera, who coached the Chargers defense before Carolina hired him in 2011, has brought in several players he knew from his West Coast days, and he has seen first-hand what Ajirotutu is capable of on the field.

Adams was called up to the Panthers active roster late in the 2011 season and Carolina will likely keep him on board because he was Newton's favorite receiver during his Heisman Trophy and national championship winning season at Auburn in 2010.

Both players have a shot at being called up to the active 53-man roster this season if Carolina releases Edwards or loses any of its other receivers to injury.

 

Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers for Bleacher Report since 2008.

You can follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone.

Recent articles by Jimmy Grappone:

Panthers Have Most Exciting Offense in NFL

5 Biggest Media Misconceptions About the Panthers

5 Reasons Defense Will Lead Panthers' Playoffs Push

Predicting the Panthers' Statistical Leaders in 2012

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