Carolina Panthers Were Wrong to Pass on Plaxico Burress

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Carolina Panthers Were Wrong to Pass on Plaxico Burress
Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images
Plaxico Burress was a big red-zone target for the Jets in 2011.

Free-agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress went on WFNZ Radio in Charlotte on June 19 and told the listening audience that he would like to play for the Carolina Panthers.

Burress has family in the Charlotte area and a desire to find the best available spot for his services.

"I just want to put myself in a position to go out and have success and to make the guys around me better and obviously play with a quarterback who can really play the position," Burress said during the radio interview. "It's just about me picking my spots and seeing where I'm a good fit. You just look at a situation like Carolina. You can't come across a better situation than that."

Looking solely at the numbers, Burress was right.

Burress caught 45 passes last year for the New York Jets, but more importantly was highly involved near the end zone—catching eight touchdown passes.

The two options on the other side of wide receiver Steve Smith for the Panthers—Legadu Naanee and Brandon LaFell—only hauled in four touchdowns last season combined.

In fairness to Naanee and LaFell, the Panthers had a lot of options near the goal line. If Carolina didn’t use Smith in the red zone passing game, running back Jonathan Stewart was an option as were both tight ends, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, who combined for nine touchdown receptions.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Cam Newton and Brandon LaFell will need to hook up much more in 2012.

In a bind, Cam Newton could use his feet.

Even with multiple options in the red zone, the Panthers could definitely use the help from Burress. Notching seven of his eight touchdowns from inside the red zone, Burress was a huge target inside opposing teams’ 20-yard line. And at 6'5", huge is an understatement.

But the Panthers didn’t jump out of their seats to run and sign Burress.

A team official told the Charlotte Observer that the Panthers weren’t interested, even though they looked at free-agent wide receiver Jacoby Jones earlier in the offseason.

Smith even went on the NFL Network and said adding Burress wouldn’t be in the cards for the Panthers.

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“We’ve filled our chairs in the receivers room with already a lot of guys—young and older guys,” Smith said. “To bring in Plax (and) to let one of those guys go it wouldn’t be the coach (Ron) Rivera way. The guys that are in there, they earned those chairs for right now and allowed them to go through training camp.”

Smith was speaking of LaFell, who caught 36 passes and scored three times last season, and David Gettis, who is returning to the team after an ACL injury ended his 2011 season. Not to mention the Panthers signed a slew of other young receivers for the camp roster and added depth in the draft too with rookie Joe Adams.

But are those in-house options enough to get Carolina over the hump and back into NFC South respectability?

LaFell is especially intriguing.

Using some advanced metrics, LaFell was a top-32 receiver in terms of value over a replacement player. He was ranked 11th in the league in another replacement-level stat that looked at same-game situations.

It’s stats like these, in addition to some hard work on the field this offseason, that has the Panthers geeked about LaFell’s ability to break out in 2012. But even though we use numbers and stats to evaluate success in the NFL, it takes a player to run, jump and catch the football, and no one on the Panthers roster did that enough in 2011 to warrant Carolina’s dismissal of Burress.

Is Smith was right and the players in-house were sufficient, why was the team looking at Jones months earlier? Take away the upside of LaFell and Gettis and ask if Carolina can add four wins (an arbitrary number to get Carolina to 10 wins and possible playoff contention) with just Smith as an aerial option.

That doesn’t jive.

Panthers Nation is busting at the seams with hope for the 2012 season. The defense can be much improved this season because of draft picks like Luke Kuechley and returning leaders like Jon Beason, and the defense was an Achilles’ heel in 2011.

But the offense needs attention too.

At quarterback, Newton burst into the scene with an incredible rookie campaign. But he’s going to need to develop further in 2012, and giving him another seasoned target—much like Burress would offer—makes sense.

The Panthers need to reconsider their stance on Burress or come up with a better answer to why they don’t need his services. The statement that the wide receiver depth chart is full just doesn’t ring true.

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