Carolina's Wide Receivers Need To Step Up
By Blake Baxter
Summer is starting to wind down and the NFL preseason is underway. Year after year, the preseason is maligned for a variety of reasons. This season is, of course, no different. The Redskins have already said that their sensational star quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is coming off major ACL and LCL injuries, does not need to play in the preseason. Their decision to sit RG3 echoes the sentiment of calls for a reduced preseason that even commissioner Roger Goodell has made. There is a contingent of fans that think of the preseason as nothing more than an unnecessary formality – and a risky one at that. The preseason indisputably increases the chance that key players get hurt. Is the risk worth the reward of having football back in our lives a month early? In addition, does anyone really want to watch reserves and second-team players in action?
Well, it turns out that despite what you may hear, an inordinate amount of people do care about preseason football. NBC’s broadcast of the Dallas Cowboys-Miami Dolphins preseason opener averaged 10.1 million viewers, allowing the network to finish first in ratings among networks by a large margin. In other words, more people watched a preseason NFL game than anything else on television that night. But that is not the only reason the preseason is not going anywhere anytime soon.
It seems obvious, but it should be noted that teams legitimately rely on the preseason to test personnel against players other than their own. Potential shown by bench players in a seemingly meaningless preseason game in August could be crucial when some starters inevitably go down midway through the regular season. A strong or a poor showing could seal the deal for guys that are on the fringe of starting positions. If nothing else, it gives the coaching staff a better idea of what the state of the team actually is. It can give fans a better idea of what is to come too – I attended a Bears-Broncos preseason game in August of 2002 and even at the age of twelve, I could tell Terrell Davis did not have much left in the tank. He retired before the season began.
The Carolina Panthers, like most teams, have a variety of positions that are up for grabs. But, unlike many of them, the Panthers have no quarterback controversy. Third year starter Cam Newton has been responsible for most of the Panthers offense the past two seasons and will be expected to carry the load yet again. However, whom he will be throwing the ball to is still being determined.
Leading the group is 34-year-old veteran Steve Smith. As has been previously noted, Smith, who is entering his thirteenth NFL season, has been among the NFL’s most productive receivers for quite some time now. The past two seasons, Smith has benefitted from being fed by a reliable quarterback in Newton. Last season, he recorded 73 receptions, 1,174 yards and four touchdowns. The season before that, he had even better numbers across board (79 receptions, 1,394 yards, seven touchdowns) and made the Pro Bowl. He will likely have another solid season, but he is not as agile as he once was and will need help from other receivers.
Fourth year Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell gained more playing time last season, but did not catch very many more balls – 44 receptions for 677 yards in twelve games as a starter in 2012 compared to 36 receptions for 613 yards in six games as a starter in 2011. He will need to record more receptions to take pressure off of Smith this season.
The Panthers also brought in two more wideouts during this offseason to add depth to the receiver position. Domenik Hixon was mostly a backup receiver for the Giants – his primary asset was in the return game – but nonetheless, he can be a contributor for the Panthers. Ted Ginn Jr. was once considered one of the most promising receivers in the league, but he struggled to become a top target in Miami and floundered for the otherwise-thriving 49ers. The Panthers hope the change in scenery will give him the jolt that he needs to rejuvenate his career. He will be the number one return man, though do not be surprised to see Ginn Jr. in some of Carolina’s spread sets.
The Panthers also still have the young and relatively inexperienced duo of Armanti Edwards and David Gettis. Edwards has been featured as a receiver or returner in every game of the past two seasons, but has not started a game. Last season, he recorded five receptions, 12 kickoff returns and two punt returns. The oft-injured Gettis has seen little time for the Panthers, but he did show potential in 2010 in his lone season as a starter.
While the starters are likely already set, there are plenty of other guys whose fate could be pending on what they show during the preseason. Smith and LaFell are all but set to be the top two on the depth chart in a month when the regular season begins. The rest of the guys have four games to prove that they should be the next man up.