Steve Smith? his job is to stretch the field and get yards after the catch. Keary Colbert? No – like Smith, Colbert is smaller in stature and is better suited lining up against a corner on the outside. Third on the depth chart is 16 year veteran Ricky Proehl, who at 37 years old is more of a 3rd down, possession WR than a red zone threat.
TE Kris Mangum never fulfilled his potential as Wesley Walls' replacement in the red zone, but is the best blocking TE on the team. Third year TE Mike Seidman has show flashes of brilliance, but hasn't made big plays when it mattered. Second year TE Michael Gaines has freakish potential, but faltered when given opportunities last season.
Who fills the hole that Muhsin Muhammad's exodus created? Who will be the down-field blocker Muhammad was, or the red zone fade threat that he became during his career with the Panthers? No one currently on the roster fills that niche, and with limited cap space, it's unlikely that they will find one in free agency.
The answer could come in this year's draft. There are a few prospects that could fit the bill for the Panthers.
Perhaps the most dynamic prospect is University of Virginia TE Heath Miller, who figures to be still on the board when the Panthers pick at 14. Miller isn't blessed with blazing speed, but he has the best hands out of any prospect in the draft and superb instincts to find the holes in the coverage; something that the Panthers have lacked since the days of Walls owning the end zone. At 6' 5", Miller would give the Panthers a huge target that the Panthers currently lack.
Some Panthers fans and writers feel that drafting Miller would be wasted with Offensive Coordinator Dan Henning's offensive philosophies. That isn't the case. Henning has been around a long time, and is a coach that will utilize his strengths. With a weapon like Miller, the Panthers' offense would have more options in the red zone and open up the running game based on Miller's presence and reputation receiving the ball. A linebacker more than likely would be assigned to cover Miller, and that would take 1 crucial defender out of the mix in the opponents' run defense.
Although Miller presents the best option in the draft, he isn't the only option available to the Panthers.
In the second and third rounds, prospects such as Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown of Georgia and former Arkansas QB Matt Jones could fill the void. Gibson is 6' 4" and runs a 4.5 40. He has long arms and can make acrobatic catches. Gibson doesn't like to make catches over the middle however, but has the potential to be a good blocker for the position. His questionable toughness wouldn't sit well with the Panthers brass though. Gibson's University of Georgia teammate Reggie Brown is regarded as one of the better downfield blockers in the 2005 WR class. At 6' 1", he's not huge in stature, but is an intense competitor that plays bigger than he is. Brown has good speed and burst, and would be an asset to the Panthers running game as well with his blocking.
The fastest rising prospect in the draft may be former Arkansas QB Matt Jones. Jones is 6' 5" tall, runs a 4.6 40 and has the potential to be a huge weapon for whatever team drafts him. At 6' 5", there isn't a defensive back that could out-jump him. Although he played QB in college, Jones shows a great ability to catch passes in traffic and is extremely athletic. The only negatives to his game are his questionable drive to get better along with his limited experience at WR – which incidentally go hand in hand. Fortunately, the Panthers have one of the best WR coaches in the NFL in Richard Williamson that could mold Jones into a nasty weapon over time.
The biggest sleeper in the draft is Larry Brackins from Pearl River Community College in Mississippi. Brackins has exceptional speed and size (6' 4"), and has the ability to make the circus catches. His down side is that he didn't play against any competition in junior college, and could be lost in the NFL game.
Other late round prospects include Vincent Jackson out of Northern Colorado and Jason Anderson from Ricky Proehl's Alma matter Wake Forest. With three 5th round choices, the Panthers will more than likely take a WR in that round. They have been impressed by Purdue's Taylor Stubblefield, who isn't flashy, tall or fast, but is a good receiver and knows how to get open.
The Panthers have to get a solid red zone target in the draft to make the other facets of their offense effective. They will be kicking themselves if they don't
Who will be the red zone threat?
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