SPARTANBURG — Brandon LaFell can recall with ease the first training camp conversation he had with Steve Smith.
It was still early in the 2010 training camp at Wofford College when Smith, sitting on the sideline with the day off, pointed to LaFell.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m going to need you just as bad as you need me,’” LaFell remembered.
Since LaFell’s rookie season, Smith has been pushing the former third-round draft choice in an attempt to groom LaFell into a No. 1 wide receiver. And LaFell has been pushing himself while also knowing that, for now, the Panthers need him to be the complement to Smith.
“I see it as another year to go out here and prove to everybody that I can really do this,” LaFell said. “A lot of people say I’m not a good No. 2 receiver, but I’m learning from one of the best guys in the game who’s the No. 1, which I’m trying to be.”
The fourth-year receiver from Louisiana State has shown improvement during each of his first three years. He tallied 468 yards in his rookie year, following that with 613 in 2011 before catching a career-high 44 balls last season for 677 yards and four touchdowns.
His yardage total likely would have been more had he not missed two games with a foot injury. But despite the improvement, he knows this has to be his year.
“I feel like I’ve progressed every year, but this is the last year of my (rookie) deal,” LaFell said. “I got to come out here and ball and give the Panthers a reason to keep me around.”
LaFell signed a four-year, $2.6 million contract after the Panthers drafted him in the third round, and he’s set to become a free agent at the end of the season. He knows his future with the team could hinge on what he’s able to do this fall.
Not since 2008 have the Panthers had two wide receivers with more than 700 receiving yards each, and Carolina has been looking for that complement to Smith since the departure of Muhsin Muhammad.
“I think (Brandon) is a solid No. 2 and he’s still trending up,” Ron Rivera said. “I think the arrow’s still up on Brandon. Now it’s just a matter of doing it. I really believe that.
“If he can start off the way (he played) in the middle of the season—he had some really big games—if he can do that early for us, I think it’s really going to help us. It’s going to help Steve an awful lot.”
Smith agrees. He said with LaFell playing the way he is, along with the free-agent acquisition of Ted Ginn Jr. and the emergence of Armanti Edwards, the Panthers receiving corps reminds him of the mid-2000s with Smith, Muhammad and Ricky Proehl.
“You just (can’t) concern yourself with one guy, you have to concern yourself with three guys,” Smith said. “And I think we got that, and I think with the addition of Ted, he’s another guy that’s going to help us, who showed immediately that he’s going to help.”
During this training camp, LaFell and Smith decided to have a competition on who could run the best Stop-7 route — a corner route that goes 15 yards and toward the sideline.
LaFell ran one so well he decided to pay himself a compliment, and when Smith heard that he challenged his pupil.
“The next couple of plays we both had the route,” LaFell said. “We got into the film and started watching it, and next thing you know he said, ‘I’ll give it to you. You’re the better one.’”
“Nothing but competition,” LaFell said.
Smith and LaFell are locked into the No. 1 and 2 wide receiver spots. But the No. 3 spot is up for grabs, and behind them, uncertainty. The Observer’s take on the competition is shaping up at camp:
Vying for No. 3: Ted Ginn Jr., Domenik Hixon and Armanti Edwards
On the bubble: Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares and David Gettis
Outside looking in: Brenton Bersin, Dale Moss, Taulib Ikharo and James Shaw