Panthers' Free Agent Targets: Wide Receiver

The Carolina Panthers overhauled their wide receiver position a season ago swapping Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. for Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. While the Benjamin move looks to be a great one for the Panthers, the front office may need to go back to the drawing board for the rest of the position this offseason.

Last year the Carolina Panthers top three wide receivers (Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Philly Brown) accounted for a little over 43% of the team’s receptions. The number two and number three wide receiver positions were vastly under-utilized for a majority of the season. Benjamin actually finished the year with more reception than Cotchery and Brown combined (73 for Benjamin, 69 for Cotchery/Brown).

Luckily for the Panthers there are a number of options on the free agent market that could be signed for relatively cheap contracts that would not put a major strain on the team’s salary cap. A majority of these players have question marks, whether it is based on production or health related, but could be excellent upgrades at the position.

These are four players that the Panthers could consider in free agency.

 

Jeremy Maclin

2014 Stats: 85 receptions, 1318 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns

Jeremy Maclin entered the year with a number of question marks surrounding him. How would he play coming off an ACL injury suffered in training camp a little over a year ago? With DeSean Jackson in Washington now, is he capable of being a number one wide receiver?

Maclin put those questions to rest with an impressive season last year and showed he can be a top-tier wide receiver. He finished the year in the Top 15 in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns on the high-powered Philadelphia Eagles’ offense.

Of the players on this list, Maclin will demand the most money but he is the one player that would be a true number one wide receiver. He has excellent speed that allows him to get over the top of defenses for big plays. He has reliable hands with only one dropped pass all of last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and also finished the year with zero fumbles. At only 26 years of age, Maclin is still young and just entering his prime.

The biggest hurdle for the Panthers will be if they are willing to pay the money necessary to bring a wide receiver like Jeremy Maclin. There is even a chance that the Panthers won’t have that opportunity if the Philadelphia Eagles decide to use their franchise tag, which is in play according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.

 

Torrey Smith

2014 Stats: 49 receptions, 767 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns

One player who could bring a similar skill set as Maclin but at a much lower price tag would be Baltimore Ravens’ Torrey Smith. The Eagles wide receiver had 50 more targets than Smith but looking at their averages they have similar numbers. Maclin finished the year catching 59% of his targets and averaging 15.5 yards per reception while Smith finished the year catching 53% of his targets with a 15.7 yards per reception average.

The concern with Smith is that his season totals actually dropped from 2013 to 2014 however outside factors could have played a major role. In 2013, the Ravens did not have the run game they did last year with Justin Forsett rushing for over 1,200 yards. The other major change was that in 2013 Joe Flacco did not have many options in the passing game outside of Smith. This past year it was much more of a balanced attack with Steve Smith Sr. and the re-emergence of tight end Owen Daniels.

While Maclin is the better wide receiver, Smith would seem to be the better fit. Opposing defenses would have to account for Smith which would give Benjamin more favorable matchups. However, Benjamin should still be considered the team’s top receiving option. If the Panthers brought in a player like Maclin, that would take too many targets away from Benjamin and hinder his development in the NFL.

 

Cecil Shorts III

2014 Stats: 53 receptions, 557 receiving yards, 1 touchdown

Over the past two seasons, Cecil Shorts III has seen his stats steadily decline from his breakout year in 2012:

Year

Receptions

Receiving Yards

Yards Per Reception

Touchdowns

2012

55

979

17.8

7

2013

66

777

11.8

3

2014

53

557

10.5

1

 

 

This is certainly not a trend a player wants to have heading into free agency however I believe he deserves a pass when his quarterbacks are taken into consideration. Over the past three years he has had Blaine Gabbert, Luke McCown, Chad Henne and Blake Bortles throwing him the ball. It is certainly hard to put up respectable numbers with these quarterbacks leading your offense.

Aside from the lack of the production, the biggest concern with Shorts is if he can stay healthy. In his four years in the NFL he has yet to play a full 16-game season with his highest game total coming in 2012 with 14.

Shorts is probably the biggest unknown of this group considering who his quarterbacks have been but he could end up being the best bargain. It is hard to tell if Shorts has reached his full potential considering the physical abilities he has, particularly his speed. When Shorts is able to get the ball in space, he can turn a routine five-yard slant into a huge chunk of yards.

 

Brandon Tate

2014 Stats: 17 receptions, 193 receiving yards, 1 touchdown

This is not a move that would make huge headlines but would be a great fit for the Carolina Panthers. The primary reason for bringing Tate aboard would be for his experience as a returner. Over the past four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Tate has had 126 punt returns with a 9.8 yards per return average and 128 kick-off returns with a 24.25 yards per return average.

Last year, Brenton Bersin struggled as the team’s primary returner, particularly controlling the ball. A veteran player like Tate returning kicks would be a huge boost to a special teams unit that was near the bottom in the league.

Tate would not be limited to just being a returner and could serve as the team’s fourth wide receiver behind Benjamin, Cotchery and another free agent/draft pick that the Panthers brought in. In the three years with the Bengals, Tate did not have a single dropped pass and could be an excellent third down target for Cam Newton when the Panthers try to spread the field with four-wide receiver sets.


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