Dan Pompei's Read Option: Who Will Cam Newton Throw to This Season?

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) sits on the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Dave Martin/Associated Press

The Carolina Panthers are about as thin at the wide-receiver position as a properly shaved slice of garlic. Steve Smith is in Baltimore, Brandon LaFell in New England, Ted Ginn Jr. in Arizona and Domenik Hixon in Chicago. Hakeem Nicks, their primary free-agent target at the position, is in Indianapolis. The receivers on their roster now had a combined total of five NFL receptions until Jerricho Cotchery reportedly signed on Wednesday afternoon.

Is this a reason for panic? Yes. But it's not because of what the Panthers lost. It's because of what they don't have to replace what they lost.

The Panthers knew this day was coming with Smith, who will be 35 soon and has been regarded as a thorn in Cam Newton's side. The Panthers needed to try to get his replacement in house in 2013, or maybe 2012. Not in 2014. "They had no succession plan for Smith," one pro personnel director said. "And they have not had a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver since Muhsin Muhammad left (in 2010)."

In the past three drafts, two run by Marty Hurney and one by Dave Gettleman, the Panthers chose 20 players. Eighteen of those picks were players at positions other than wide receiver. The only receivers they picked were Joe Adams, in the fourth in 2012, and Kealoha Pilares, in the fifth in 2011.

The Panthers haven't selected a wide receiver in the first three rounds since 2010. That's why they are in crisis mode right now.

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Smith had only four catches of 20 or more yards last year. The Denver Broncos had three wide receivers who were more productive than Smith, and the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins each had two.

Losing him should not ruin a passing game. Losing left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement is more detrimental.

"Smith isn't a No. 1 anymore," one personnel executive said. "He's still productive against man, but he isn't a quarterback-friendly receiver."

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Two front-office men said they would want to replace LaFell if he were their No. 2 wide receiver.

"He really is not a starter-quality player," one said. "He is stiff and mechanical. He's not crafty."

The second called him "an inconsistent player with inconsistent hands."

Ginn can return kicks, but he has caught more than 35 passes in a season one time in seven years.

"He's a one-dimensional player," a personnel director said. "Good speed, but he can't catch."

What Smith, LaFell and Ginn had that new Carolina receivers won't have for awhile is chemistry with Newton. "Cam will have to get acclimated to three new players," the personnel director said. "The only good thing is he still has the tight end."

The tight end, Greg Olsen, was the Panthers' leading receiver last season and likely will be counted on even more in 2014 while Newton works to develop a comfort level with an entire new group of wide receivers. Getting to know his receivers will take more time than usual because Newton underwent ankle surgery Wednesday and is not supposed to be able to practice until the start of training camp.

The continued development of Newton remains a high priority for the Panthers. Having him throw to leftover free agents and raw rookies might not be the best way to achieve that. Depending on what players the Panthers can acquire, they also might be limited in terms of offensive play calling. Running the football could be more difficult if opposing defenses don't respect the new wideouts.

The Panthers still need veterans, but the market is thinning rapidly. They did reportedly sign Cotchery today. Perhaps they will make a late run at a discount free agent such as Santonio Holmes, Earl Bennett, Sidney Rice or Kenny Britt. There really were no true No. 1 wide receivers available in free agency. Gettleman might have been well served overpaying for a No. 2 such as Nicks, Eric Decker, Golden Tate, Andre Roberts, Emmanuel Sanders or James Jones, and propping him up as a No. 1.

It's difficult to imagine the Panthers taking anything but a wide receiver with the 28th pick in the first round. They are in a corner in the draft. That means they may have to pass up a better player at another position. It also means other teams could jump them to get a wide receiver.

The Panthers don't just need any wide receiver. They need an NFL-ready wide receiver. Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, the two players who could really help, will be long gone by the time the Panthers select. They could be looking at Marqise Lee, Odell Beckham or Brandin Cooks, as it is likely at least one of them will fall to 28.

The Panthers' wide receivers weren't good enough last year. If Gettleman can rectify that given where his roster stands today, he should be a leading candidate for NFL executive of the year.

NFL Confidential

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

• As reported here last week, former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen was asking for some big money at the start of free agency. His contract hopes may have something to do with the fact that Allen has yet to latch on with a team. Now that the first wave of free agency has passed, Allen's camp has put out the word that he would be willing to sacrifice some money if he thinks he can win a championship. But even if he were to join an upper-echelon team, Allen still is hoping for a salary in the vicinity of $6 million a year. Whether he will get that much at this point is debatable. But the Seattle Seahawks could be the team that fits him best.

• Getting good value for DeSean Jackson in a trade might be difficult for the Philadelphia Eagles. The problem is not Jackson's ability. Many agree that the wide receiver's talent is significant. But some front-office men are privately saying they would be hesitant to give up too much for Jackson because they are concerned about his immaturity.

• Some scouts were surprised to see Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo struggling to get a tight spiral on his passes during his pro day at Northwestern. "His ball was wobbling a lot," said one in attendance. It turns out there may have been a good reason for it. Prior to his pro day workout, the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans put him through private workouts. This ticked off a number of veteran scouts, who believe the 49ers and Texans broke an unwritten rule that says a player should not be put through a private workout prior to his pro day workout. The thinking is the player could be fatigued by the time he works out for the group, and the majority of scouts might not get a true read on the player.

Jay Biggerstaff/Associated Press

• The Kansas City Chiefs still have not officially declared that 2013 No. 1 pick Eric Fisher is moving from right tackle to left, but the coaching staff almost assuredly will do so, according to a source close to the situation. One of the reasons the Chiefs allowed Brandon Albert to depart in free agency is they believe Fisher is well suited for left tackle because of his athleticism and patience. Most of his experience in college was at left tackle, and playing right tackle as a rookie was a transition for him. Fisher struggled with some of the power elements of the game at right tackle that might not be as problematic at left tackle.

• The Ravens are not sweating the loss of Michael Oher, in part because they have a potential replacement in place. The leading candidate to replace Oher at right tackle will be Ricky Wagner, who played pretty well in packages as a rookie last year. The Ravens drafted him in the fifth round last April, but at one point Wagner was a higher-rated prospect. His stock slipped a bit over his last season at Wisconsin, but Wagner still has the ability to be a solid NFL starter. And the Ravens have another option if Wagner isn't ready or doesn't work out. Guard Kelechi Osemele has played tackle before and can be moved if need be.

Scout Talk

The best free-agent signings are not always the most obvious. After consulting with multiple front-office men, here, in alphabetical order, is my list of the best free-agent signings, taking into account price and fit.

Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press

Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints: He was costly, but do you think Rob Ryan is going to have some fun using him and Kenny Vaccaro together? Byrd's capacity for interceptions will increase in this defense. "They'll pay for that $9 million average per year down the road," said a high-ranking NFC exec. "But they have two of the best safeties in the league."

Arthur Jones, Indianapolis Colts: A personnel director said Jones is explosive and gets in the backfield. "The thing I really like about this signing is he is still on the come up," he said.

Linval Joseph, Vikings: It isn't often that you see an ascending defensive tackle change teams who has Joseph's youth, size and durability. He is the type of player who can make others better, including 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd.

Henry Melton, Dallas Cowboys: Melton has thrived with Rod Marinelli before, and he can again. One pro scout said he liked the fact that the Cowboys essentially signed Melton to a one-year deal, so that should keep him motivated.

Earl Mitchell, Dolphins: Two front-office men liked this move, saying Mitchell should thrive in the Dolphins' four-man front after playing nose tackle in the Texans' 3-4. "He's one of the most active defensive linemen I watched all year," one said.

Mike Mitchell, Pittsburgh Steelers: He might not be the best tackler in the league, but he should be a fine complement to Troy Polamalu. Mitchell didn't start to look like a player until last season, after he left the Oakland Raiders. He still has room for growth, and clearly is an upgrade over the aging Ryan Clark. "They got him for nearly half the price the [Cleveland] Browns paid Donte Whitner," the high-ranking exec said. "He's a good aggressive player who can run."

Andre Roberts, Washington Redskins: "He's a versatile No. 2 receiver who can play inside or out, and they got him for a good price," a pro personnel director said.

Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos: One personnel man said Sanders was a good value. "They should be better with him than they were with Eric Decker," he said. "They already have a big receiver in Demaryius Thomas, and now Sanders gives them another element as a speed receiver."

Golden Tate, Detroit Lions: A scout said he does not expect big numbers from Tate, but said he should improve the Lions' offense by running underneath routes that help free up Calvin Johnson. He also said Tate should give the Lions offense an element of toughness and provide yards after the catch.

Walter Thurmond, New York Giants: He has only eight career starts, so it's all in front of Thurmond. "He's a solid player who is ready to take the next step," a pro scout said.

Jared Veldheer, Cardinals: He might be best suited to play right tackle in the opinion of one front-office man, but he can play left. And 26-year old left tackles with Veldheer's ability aren't available often. At $7 million a year, Veldheer is a good value and a clear upgrade in Arizona.

Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Two things that stand out about Verner's signing: He fits Lovie Smith's scheme, and his price tag was more reasonable than the price tags of some other free-agent corners. "I'd rather have him for a little more than $6 million a year than pay almost $10 million for Sam Shields or $9 million for Aqib Talib," one front-office man said.

Hot Reads 

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• Rap star M.I.A. flipped off the cameras during the halftime show of Super Bowl XLVI. Now, the NFL is returning the salute to M.I.A. in the form of a $16.6 million lawsuit (via the Hollywood Reporter).

• An expanding tattoo might do to Josh Gordon what many a cornerback has failed to do—cover the Browns wide receiver.

• You will not see RGIII wearing a knee brace in 2014. The Redskins only hope is you will not see the QB who likes to run wearing a body cast.

• Tom Brady gave the Patriots a discount when he re-upped with them. He apparently is trying to make up for it in the sale of his L.A. mansion (via the Huffington Post).

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.