2013 Carolina Panthers
Quarterback: Cam Newton
Most targeted receivers: Greg Olsen and Steve Smith Sr. (109)
After reaching the playoffs for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the Carolina Panthers shook off their bad luck streak, discovered how to win close games and formed a winning identity based on strong defense and consistent running back play. Despite their winning formula, a successful receiving game wasn’t really a part of the recipe, which resulted in miniscule fantasy value for a variety of their receivers.
There were still bright spots, however. Quarterback Cam Newton kicked his game up a notch even though his yardage numbers dipped in both passing and rushing. He posted career highs in touchdowns (24) and completion percentage (61.7). He also took on an identity of his own, as he accounted for 30 of his team’s 42 touchdowns.
But Newton never reached the realm of elite NFL passers. He ranked in the middle of the pack in passing attempts last season with 473, and the Panthers averaged 190 passing yards per game, which ranked near the bottom of the league.
Much of the Panthers passing struggles in 2013 could be attributed to their receiving corps. There was no clear cut No. 1 receiver in Carolina. Steve Smith Sr. declined at age 34 and Brandon LaFell contributed well but didn’t reach 1,000 yards either. In the end, it was tight end Greg Olsen leading the team with 816 receiving yards on 109 targets. Smith Sr. still contributed, but only managed 745 receiving yards, resulting in one of the quieter seasons of his storied career.
The most reliable receiver in Carolina is still Olsen, who has garnered 100-plus targets in each of the last two seasons, and remains Cam Newton’s favorite guy unless somebody else breaks through.
So who could that somebody be? The likelihood of an overthrow of the Greg Olsen target stronghold is dismal right now due to the Carolina Panthers puzzling offseason. They lost Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell to free agency and replaced them with veteran possession receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Both Avant and Cotchery combined for a little over 1,000 receiving yards last season and are both in their 30s, so it’s safe to say the Panthers failed to sign any playmakers. They did draft wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State, however. But since Benjamin is still a rookie, the door is still wide open for a dark horse.
Candidate No. 1 — Brandon Williams
An undrafted tight end out of Oregon, Williams drew a team-leading seven targets in the team’s first preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. He caught three of them for 50 yards including a 31-yard touchdown snag from quarterback Joe Webb.
Williams caught another big-gainer against the Kansas City Chiefs for 31 yards the following week as well. Williams has been the most improved offensive skill player in Carolina so far.
At 6’4, 250 lbs, he’s a load of a player who also played college basketball, a trait that’s become commonplace among the best NFL tight ends such as Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron. Williams almost didn’t play in the NFL due to a bulging disk in his back, so between that and being undrafted, he’s shown some ability to overcome adversity. Whether or not he’ll prove consistent enough is still anybody’s guess, though he showed he’s a little more than just potential after two solid preseason outings. It will likely take more consistency from Williams before he assumes a larger role in the offense come the regular season due to his inexperience.
Candidate No. 2 — Kelvin Benjamin
Benjamin managed a touchdown of his own in his first preseason game, which came on a brilliant diving catch over one of the better corners in the league in Stephon Gilmore. Benjamin got behind Gilmore on a 9-route, stumbled a bit, then gathered himself enough to layout and somehow come up with the ball.
The one big knock on Benjamin is his inconsistency. Even while at Florida State, he lacked the physicality and desire to be a complete receiver. Though Benjamin is looking like he’ll be the No. 2 guy and is showing promise, he’s still a rookie who’s not a burner (4.61 40-time) and plays in a run-based offense. It’s unlikely he’ll garner more than 70-80 targets his rookie year. Benjamin’s height (6’5) could lend itself to seven or eight touchdowns this season on red zone jump balls, however.
Olsen remains Newton’s favorite until proven otherwise.
When it comes to who will garner the most targets in 2014, this one really is up in the air. Both Cotchery and Avant are glorified slot guys in the Panther offense and lack the athleticism needed to get open consistently.
With veteran receivers in Avant and Cotchery unlikely to produce consistently based on their age and lack of speed, it’s likely Greg Olsen will remain the team’s go-to guy for 2014.
Projected most targeted receiver for 2014: Greg Olsen (102)