One Panther Preview: The Pass Catchers

By John Ellis

Four years ago, the Carolina Panthers entered their 21st season in a spot of bother. The abrupt loss of second-year wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn left ACL in training camp left a void many pundits saw as too wide, too deep to overcome.

It was a troubling August afternoon on the steamy fields of Wofford College–the team’s best receiver, and his 1,008 yards from 2014, were gone. Hopes were low.

Yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the team’s media-sponsored funeral.

Ron Rivera’s men didn’t lose a single football game for the next 130 days. They rolled through the NFC to a 17-2 season, ending on a sour note in Super Bowl 50, but still carving out a special place in football lore.

This is a cautionary tale, one in which great off-seasons can lead to disappointing real-seasons, and vice versa. It’s why they play the game, as has been said.

The present is where we are, and we must focus in on that. The 2019 Carolina Panthers. What do we have, exactly?

Armed with what feels like the most dynamic group of skill players assembled in the Ron Rivera era, the Carolina Panthers enter their 25th training camp next week in Spartanburg with, for a change, almost as many answers as questions. At least as far as the pass catchers are concerned.

While the media-at-large has spent the better part of seven months examining the state of Cam Newton’s surgically repaired right shoulder, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney has quietly done a good job of supplementing his quarterback with a formidable offensive line while adding some robust pieces to the defensive front.

We turn our attention to the skill position players. Yes, there is reason for excitement in Carolina over the litany of weapons surrounding a presumably healthy Newton. In today’s edition of “Pick Six”, we evaluate what’s currently on the roster while narrowing it down to the six players most likely to produce on a weekly basis in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s second season with the Panthers. We base this list not solely on talent or stats, but also frequency of personnel packages.

He’s a football player.

Starting with the obvious choice, Panthers running back (WR/QB/Swiss Army Knife) Christian McCaffrey will continue to see 300+ touches in Carolina’s offense. Following an impressive 2017 rookie campaign, McCaffrey exploded in 2018 as the key cog in Turner’s quick-read, high tempo offense: 1,965 all-purpose yards on 326 touches (both ranked 3rd league-wide), 1,098 rushing yards (6th in league), with 107 receptions (8th in league).giphy.gif

McCaffrey is well-suited to become the 3rd player in NFL history to reach both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season. 49ers dual-threat Roger Craig was the first to pull it off in 1985, and was finally matched in 1999 by Rams running back Marshall Faulk.

Is McCaffrey really on that level? Look no further than the home game last November against Seattle. In what ended in a crushing defeat with Pete Carroll dancing on the field like a confused  grandfather, McCaffrey demonstrated his full potential in one of the most dominant individual performances this humble football writer has ever witnessed:

  • 17 carries, 125 yards, 1 TD
  • 11 catches, 112 yards, 1TD
  • 7.4 yards per carry
  • 10.1 yards per catch
  • 100% catch rate on 11 targets

It was a crime watching the Panthers lose that game. We’ll cover that in our next feature story, in which a full autopsy will be conducted on 2018 Carolina secondary–we’ll learn together what can now be done to preserve games like the one against the Seahawks.

Still—what a game by the Stanford product.

He’s just amazing. There’s my analysis.

Moore of that good stuff.

Twelve months ago, many didn’t know what to make of first-round pick D.J. Moore. Steve Smith? He knew.

The Maryland product drew instant praise on draft night from the Panthers all-time leader in catching balls and delivering punishment.

“They have never been able to replace me… until today,” Smith proclaimed live on NFL Network.

The future hall-of-famer got it right. And not just in terms of stats or general physical measurables. Moore plays with a mean streak. It’s quite possibly his greatest attribute. Countless times in 2018, observers–this one included–were forced to do a double-take at Moore’s violent open-field running style.

ActualImmenseArmednylonshrimp-size_restrictedIt’s almost as if some hypothetical personnel guy took Ted Ginn, Jr and/or Todd Pinkston to a football factory, and said “here, make us the opposite of this.”

Moore runs with a purpose, and it shows on tape and the stat sheet. His 7.9 YAC (yards after catch) led all NFL WR, and his 14.3 yards per catch led the team and was in-step with two of the league’s elite downfield threats: Julio Jones and Rob Gronkowski.

The plot—and depth chart—thickens.

With the addition of former New England wide receiver Chris Hogan, the Panthers are in a winning position with third-year speedster Curtis Samuel’s ability to play multiple positions.

Hogan, who has experience as both a perimeter and slot receiver, could end up winning a starting role on the outside opposite Moore.

From 2016-17, the man once dubbed “7-Eleven” (always open; football joke) lined up in the slot on a limited basis–less than 20% of the time. The results were strong: a 17.9 YPC average led the league in 2016, along with his 11.4 yards per target metric—arguably a truer barometer of positional value.

A year later, Hogan was hitting his stride, well on pace for his first career 1000-yard season before injuries sidelined him for seven of the Patriots’ final eight games.hogan.0

Mr. 7/11 faced some uphill battles while transitioning to the slot in 2018 and ended up in the “y” position on more than 40% of his total snaps.  This was somewhat necessitated by the abrupt four-game suspension of Tom Brady’s go-to guy Julian Edelman.

No question: the big-play ability was still there, as Hogan posted a 14+ yards per catch average in eight different games and led all wide outs with a 4.1 yards of separation average, according to NFL NextGen Stats.

It’s a league of matchups. There’s no singular way to go about assigning these roles. Samuel and Hogan both bring unique skills to the table, and Turner would do well to share their time on the inside/perimeter for the common 11-personnel package. (1TE, 1RB, 3WR).

Interestingly, Samuel ranked 6th league-wide in average yards of cushion given: 6.7 yards of cozy green grass per snap—that’s not insignificant. Now, several factors can play into how far off a defensive back plays pre-snap, but it’s generally a good indicator of respect for a receiver’s ability to take the top off the defense.

MilkyNeighboringFoxhound-size_restrictedSamuel has surely proven his worth in that area. In many respects, he’s built like a back, and Turner isn’t afraid to utilize him as such with a variety of motions, jet sweeps and the occasional triple option.

Incumbent slot-specialist Jarius Wright is another current Panther worth keeping in mind. Coming off a career-high 43 receptions, Wright is one of “Norv’s guys”, as they both migrated from Minnesota to Carolina in the 2018 offseason.

In comments made to The Charlotte Observer last offseason, Wright beamed with confidence regarding his acumen the offensive schematics. “I know every aspect of it,” Wright said, per The Observer. “I know how he wants everything run. If Norv forgets something, he can just come ask me.”

Wright, much like Moore and Samuel, is a tough player to get on the ground after the catch. Interestingly, he did his best work in the final quarter of games last season, averaging 14.4 yards per catch (10.0 yards per target), primarily from the slot. Both situational metrics outperformed Edelman’s 2018 averages in New England. Also, Edelman played in luxury with an almost too-healthy Tom Brady—Wright was fielding passes from a wounded Newton and a trio of backups.

Meanwhile, veteran Torrey Smith is well-respected in the locker room and took a $2 million pay cut this offseason to stay in Carolina. However, given the logjam at the position and the general lack of production in 2018 (6.1 yards per target), Smith is considered a bit of a reach to have role in the rotation come September. Things do happen, and perhaps Smith will have a revival in camp.

Olsen returns, but will Thomas emerge?

At tight end, the story–much like that of the quarterback–is health. Namely, just how available will reliable–at times dominant–veteran Greg Olsen be down the stretch. After becoming the first tight end in NFL history to achieve three consecutive 1000-yard seasons (a feat always worth noting), Olsen has missed exactly half of the last two seasons, sustaining a string of related injuries to his right foot four times in a 15-month span.

With (reportedly) a looming Monday Night Football broadcast opportunity in play, Olsen opted to extend his playing career with Carolina, looking to finish with another run at a championship—and perhaps more.

giphy (1) It was clear to most that Olsen wasn’t ready to walk away, despite random rumblings from random people, claiming to have sources who were, well, claiming otherwise. Twitter in April–good times. Another reason to be grateful for this time of year: less speculation, more observation.

Hey, look. If we’re on the topic, it’s worth noting that only nine tight ends have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It’s also worth noting that Olsen has more career receiving yards than five of them. Assuming he stays healthy in 2019, he will breeze past Ozzie Newsome and Jackie Smith in this category, further cementing his legacy as one of the most valuable and productive players of his generation.

In the wings, second-year intrigue Ian Thomas finds himself in a tremendous position: playing with an elite play-extender at quarterback, coached by a coordinator who places great value on the tight end position, all while studying the nuances of route running, run blocking and film study from one of the game’s workaholics in Olsen.

Thomas caught our eye in 2018 with his burst off the line and his assertive nature after the catch. He plays the game much like Moore, in that they both seek contact with the ball in their hands. Turner did a nice job of bringing the rookie along in the preseason, and as (bad) luck would have it, Thomas was forced into the starting role when Olsen fractured his problematic right foot in the first quarter of the season opener against Dallas.

It took some learning, and there were some rookie mistakes. Missed blocking assignments. Poor routes. A few drops. But as the season progressed, so did Thomas. After seeing just one target over a seven-game stretch, Thomas put on a clinic over the season’s final five games: 25 receptions, 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Extrapolated, this stretch of metrics would result in a full season with 80 receptions and 787 yards. NT11

Third-string tight end Chris Manhertz will continue to play an important role in 22/23 personnel looks, from which his value as an extension of the offensive line will help guide the running game. The occasional play action look from these packages should give Manhertz a good look at scoring opportunities near the end zone.

Pick Six: Who will shine?

 

Our “Pick Six” for skill players isn’t overly scientific. It’s our best forecast as to the six skill players who will post the best set of production metrics in 2019:

  • HB Christian McCaffrey
  • WR DJ Moore
  • WR Curtis Samuel
  • WR Chris Hogan
  • WR Jarius Wright
  • TE Greg Olsen

Honorable mention/7th Man Award: Ian Thomas.

I’m forecasting a departure for Torrey Smith. I’m also anticipating a great season from Chris Hogan on the perimeter.

Let’s not forget to pay homage to the departure of Devin Funchess. I’ll say this: I liked the guy for a bit. He did show some toughness at times, particularly on the final drive of Carolina’s dramatic win at New England in 2017. He had his moments.

But in the end, this is just a better way forward. More speed–and just a higher overall ceiling for explosive plays.

In any event, this will be a fascinating group of pass catchers to watch in camp.

Oh, and yes: do keep an eye on that Newton kid. A healthy wing for #1 makes or breaks this season for a lot of people.

Check out OnePantherPlace.com this weekend for our next preview installment: the defensive backfield.