Four wide receivers for the Carolina Panthers caught 156 passes last season.
If you take away Steve Smith’s 64 receptions, as he’s now with the Baltimore Ravens, that leaves just 92 catches. Subtract Brandon LaFell’s 49, 36 from Ted Ginn Jr. and the seven receptions Domenik Hixon hauled in, as they bolted in free agency to the New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears, respectively, and that leaves no receivers on Carolina’s 2014 roster who caught a pass in 2013.
Not only did the Panthers lose every wide receiver who caught a pass last season, they lost four guys who had a combined 32 years in the NFL and eight with Carolina. Smith and LaFell had been with the team during quarterback Cam Newton's entire tenure, Ginn Jr. and Hixon joined just for the 2013 campaign.
After the mass exodus, general manager Dave Gettleman went out onto the free-agent market and signed Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Together they have 23 years of experience in the NFL but none catching passes from Newton.
Newton is going to have to start over building relationships with his receiving corps. But he’s not going to be able to start the on-field portion of that process for some time, as he’s still recovering from offseason ankle surgery. Newton is making progress, according to Steve Reed of The Associated Press, but isn’t expected to be ready until training camp.
The Panthers used their first-round draft pick on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State. He’ll round out a receiving corps that will be leaned on to provide Carolina with similar production to last season. But that’s a pipe dream, as the 2014 Panthers receiving corps is ill-equipped to replicate the level of play the team enjoyed from Smith, LaFell and Company.
Let’s compare the four receivers in regard to their perceived roles.
The 1's — Cotchery vs. Smith
Smith was with the Panthers for 13 seasons, most of those as the team’s No. 1 target. Sure, it’s safe to say that he was no longer in the prime of his career and likely was not going to give Carolina No. 1 stuff anymore, but Smith was still a rock star for this offense.
When the Panthers needed a first down, Smith came through with 44 of them last season. He was Carolina’s co-leader, with tight end Greg Olsen, when it came to moving the chains via the pass. He missed one start, a Week 17 game due to a knee injury, but was otherwise indispensable to Carolina’s offense.
Cotchery only started one game prior to Week 11 last season, when the Steelers started using more three-wide receiver sets. But make no mistake; even as a starter, he was No. 3 on the depth chart behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
In Pittsburgh’s offense, Cotchery had his moments. He was one heck of a red-zone target, catching 10 touchdown passes. But he’s still best suited to act as a No. 3 receiver, pulling in his allotment of passes because defenses are looking at other weapons on the field.
Cotchery will turn 32 years old prior to the 2014 season and will find life as Carolina’s No. 1 less appealing than his role in Pittsburgh’s offense. At 35, Smith’s no spring chicken either, but at least he was better suited to be the focal point of an offense.
The 2’s — Benjamin vs. LaFell
This is going to be the toughest comparison to make because we’re comparing a college star to an NFL underachiever.
Benjamin caught 54 passes for 1,011 yards and scored 15 touchdowns for the Florida State Seminoles last season. He was mainly a downfield threat and ranked seventh in the country with 22 receptions of 20 yards or more. Benjamin is 6’5” and will be a massive target for Newton to throw toward, but that size will also come at a disadvantage at times as he adjusts to the NFL game.
In college, Benjamin excelled to a certain degree because he was able to physically dominate smaller defensive backs who played off the line of scrimmage. When he faces stronger and faster cover corners who will play press coverage, Benjamin may find it difficult to get off the line of scrimmage and into his routes, especially with blazing speed.
As Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com noticed, Benjamin might also be a bad fit for the Panthers schematically.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton averaged 8.49 air yards per pass last season, a drop from 9.31 during his first two seasons as starter. (The latter ranked No. 4 in the league during that period.) The Panthers found more success with the underneath routes, and Newton's 28.1 completion percentage on passes of at least 15 yards downfield ranked No. 36 among 37 qualified NFL quarterbacks.
If Benjamin’s biggest asset is his ability to get downfield but Newton is limited in his ability to throw the deep ball, someone’s weakness is going to be exploited. It’s likely the Panthers will experiment with adding the deep pass back into Newton’s repertoire. If that doesn’t take, Benjamin is going to have to learn to live on shorter routes.
LaFell never materialized into the receiver Carolina thought it drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft. Over the past two seasons, LaFell averaged 46.5 receptions, 652 yards receiving and 4.5 touchdown catches, and that looked as if that is where he was going to top out as a receiving threat.
Those kind of numbers won’t win any awards as a No. 2 receiver, but they were steady. It’s anyone’s guess how Benjamin’s first season will go from a numbers standpoint. As Carolina’s first-round pick, a campaign that turned out somewhere between 40-50 catches, 600 yards receiving or so and four to five touchdowns might be disappointing, but that may be where Benjamin lives in 2014.
If that’s what the Panthers get out of Benjamin, that’s a productive start to his career given the circumstances.
The 3’s — Avant vs. Ginn Jr.
Avant and Ginn Jr. are completely different receivers. Avant just finished his least productive season since 2008, and Ginn Jr. nearly had a career year with the Panthers in 2013. There’s also the fact that Avant is a possession receiver who survives in the slot, and Ginn Jr. is a deep threat.
Statistically, the two are very comparable. Avant caught 38 passes last season with two touchdowns, and Ginn Jr. pulled in 36 and caught five touchdown passes. Four of the touchdown passes Ginn Jr. caught were of 25 yards or more (40, 47, 25, 36, 3). When Newton did connect on the deep ball, Ginn Jr. was usually the target.
Avant isn’t going to get those opportunities, as most of the attempts of 25 yards or more are going to go toward Benjamin. Avant should still get targeted similarly to 2013, but his yardage might drop, and his touchdown targets will be far fewer.
Edge: Ginn Jr.
The 4’s — Underwood vs. Hixon
There won’t be a whole lot of footballs to go around after the top three receivers this year in Carolina. Hixon only caught seven passes last season, and Underwood’s 2014 results might be very much the same.
Underwood caught 24 passes last season and 28 the year prior. But before you believe recent history could mean an uptick in production for the No. 4 slot in Carolina, remember that Hixon caught 39 passes for the New York Giants before joining the Panthers and toiling in obscurity.
If Underwood makes a mark on the 2014 season, it’ll be at the expense of one of the three receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, not because the Panthers suddenly have more receptions to go around.
This competition between the fours is not nearly as important as the three prior because of the lack of targets expected. But Underwood does have some potential as a secondary deep threat. That makes him a better receiver for this slot than Hixon was. Which is probably why Hixon wasn’t brought back into the fold.
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.