Free Agent Brandon LaFell Won't Find a Warm Welcome on Crowded WR Market

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Free Agent Brandon LaFell Won't Find a Warm Welcome on Crowded WR Market
MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press

Searching for a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver in 2010 to play opposite Steve Smith, the Carolina Panthers used their third-round pick in the draft on Brandon LaFell, who left LSU ranked No. 2 on its all-time touchdown reception list (25) and third in receptions (175).

Four years later, the Panthers are still looking.

LaFell’s draft profile on NFL.com showed a 6’2” receiver with raw talent and a ton of potential.

LaFell is a big receiver that has a huge upside but still needs to refine his game if he wants to excel at the next level. He has adequate speed for the position but with his size and stride length he can sneak up on and run by a lot of defenders. He has soft, natural hands but will drop some balls due to lapses of concentration.

The now-27-year-old LaFell never lived up to the hype or expectations. He never caught more than 49 passes in a season or eclipsed the 700-yard receiving plateau. He also led the Panthers with eight dropped passes in 2013 and totaled 15 drops over his four-year stay in Charlotte, N.C.

Disappointing to the Panthers is the fact that their quest to find a solid offensive weapon, someone who can help quarterback Cam Newton move the chains and force the defense to widen its coverage pattern, is yet again a priority heading into the 2014 draft.

Many mock drafts have the Panthers picking a wide receiver in the first round in May, including CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler’s recent mock on Feb. 4 and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s newest Mock 2.0NFL.com analysts Bucky Brooks, Daniel Jeremiah and Matt Smith all had Carolina using its pick on a receiver in their mock drafts.

2014 Mock Drafts
NFL Expert Media Outlet First-round Pick (Panthers)
Dane Brugler CBS Sports Allen Robinson, Penn State
Mel Kiper Jr. ESPN Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Daniel Jeremiah NFL.com Jarvis Landry. LSU
Bucky Brooks NFL.com Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Matt Smith NFL.com Brandin Cooks, Oregon State

CBS, ESPN, NFL.com

A bigger disappointment is that the Panthers still don’t have any idea who is going to take over as the team’s No. 1 receiver when Smith retires. Smith will turn 35 in May and doesn’t have a lot of time left. Carolina had hoped with LaFell that he’d learn from Smith for a number of years, grooming for the opportunity to finally take over as the top option.

It’s now back to the drawing board for Carolina and a difficult wait for LaFell. In a few weeks the NFL’s league calendar will reset, and LaFell will become an unrestricted free agent. Will he and the Panthers come to an agreement for him to return to the team, or will LaFell end up on a different NFL roster for the 2014 season?

LaFell told Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer that he wanted to return to play for the Panthers but knew that it was a possibility that might not happen. LaFell’s agent even tried to negotiate with the Panthers during the season but was told to wait until after the 2013 campaign.

I want to be back with these guys. But if not, I appreciate this organization taking a chance on me, drafting me, giving me every opportunity to become a good player in this league.

When LaFell begins testing the free-agent waters, he’s not going to like what he sees. According to NFL.com, there will be 57 wide receiver free agents to choose from on the open market. Guys like Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin and Anquan Boldin highlight the 2014 free-agent wide receiver class.

LaFell won’t be one of the top 10 options on the board. Heck, he won’t even be the top free-agent option at wide receiver from Carolina’s 2013 roster.

Receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, who caught 36 and seven passes, respectively, for the Panthers in 2013, will also hit the free-agent market. Because of the versatility Ginn Jr. showed both on offense and special teams, he will be a much more attractive free agent to the Panthers as well as other teams.

In fact, LaFell might even be the last of the three options at wide receiver from Carolina’s team last season.

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David Newton of ESPN.com ranked all 21 free agents from last season’s roster, and LaFell came in at No. 20. Hixon was ranked No. 8, while Ginn Jr. was the seventh-ranked Panthers free agent.

Because LaFell won’t be one of the highly sought-after free agents at the wide receiver position once free agency begins, it’s highly likely he’ll make a deal to return to the Panthers as a backup.

Carolina is most likely either going to bring in a No. 2 receiver through the draft or free agency, meaning if LaFell returns to the Panthers he’ll be at best the No. 3 receiver. But more likely he’ll be farther down the depth chart. Ginn Jr. is someone the Panthers will make a strong run at to return to the team.

If Ginn Jr. comes back and the need at wide receiver is addressed early in the draft, LaFell, if he’s brought back to the Panthers, will be the No. 4 option on the depth chart. With the way his first four seasons in the NFL have played out, that’s the right spot for him.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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