Last season, the Carolina Panthers' wide receivers collectively had 2,263 receiving yards or an average of 141 yards per game. This was near the bottom of the league among wide receivers and to put the number in perspective, Atlanta Falcons' wide receiver Julio Jones averaged 116.9 yards per game, or 24.1 yards per game less than the Panthers' entire wide receiver position.
The fact that the Panthers had no wide receiver break the 750 receiving yard mark may be signs for concern and may force the front office to add a receiver or two this offseason. However, the state of the position may not be as dire as it first appears and the front office may not need to make any moves this offseason and the position can be stronger than last year.
The first reason, and the main one, is the fact the team will be getting a former first round wide receiver back in Kelvin Benjamin, who suffered an ACL tear in training camp last year. GM Dave Gettleman talked about Benjamin at the NFL Combine this week and said he should be ready for training camp. "Kelvin has worked his fanny off. He was jogging right after Christmas. He's doing some light cutting. So we're really pleased with his progress," Gettleman said.
"He'll be doing some things this spring and he'll be ready to go for training camp."
The return of Benjamin, who had 73 receptions, 1,008 receiving yards and nine touchdowns his rookie season, will be a huge boost for this offense.
The Panthers' will now get to see what they envisioned a season ago with Benjamin and Devin Funchess on the field at the same time. The team traded up in the second round to select the big wide receiver out of Michigan and he started the season off slow, due in part to missing a large chunk of training camp with an injury.
He started to become a factor down the stretch catching six touchdowns in the final 12 games, after failing to cross the goal line in his first seven games. Prior to the Super Bowl, offensive coordinator said about Funchess' growth over the season, "Just his confidence in route running, releases, catching the football. He still doesn’t know how good he can be, in my opinion, and that is a good thing. I mean that in a positive way."
The biggest X-factor for this position is a player who only had one target all last year, wide receiver Kevin Norwood. The Panthers swung a trade with the Seattle Seahawks prior to the season after Benjamin suffered his injury. There was some excitement when the Panthers traded for him however he struggled to make the active roster for most of the season and move up the depth chart.
"Kevin came in late, right before our last preseason game, and you've got to learn the system," Gettleman said. "We do a ton of stuff at the line of scrimmage and there's a learning curve there. There's a learning process. Kevin really finished the season strong. The last six weeks of practice he really did some nice things so we're really looking forward to it."
As Panthers' wide receiver coach Ricky Proehl said in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Norwood can play both inside and out. He should have the opportunity to step into Cotchery's role in this offense.
The impressive part about the position is that three wide receivers have been named and that group doesn't include the team's leading receiver and a player who had double digit touchdowns in Ted Ginn Jr.. Ginn had a career year and was a home run threat almost every time he caught the ball. He did have his flaws and struggled a bit with dropped passes but with Benjamin returning, he should get more favorable, winnable matchups next season with teams turning their attention to Benjamin.
The Panthers didn't always get great production from their wide receivers a season ago. However, a returning Benjamin, combined with the experience Funchess and Norwood gained this past year, should make a drastic difference for this group next season.