Assessing the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. First up: Wide receivers and tight ends.
Three things to know
▪ Olsen wants to return: Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has been fighting just to stay on the field for the past two seasons because of a Jones fracture he suffered in Week 2 of the 2017 season. Olsen had surgery and went on injured reserve, but wanted to play in 2018 so did not have a second surgery last offseason. He re-fractured his foot this season but elected to try to rehabilitate it to try to finish the season. But against Tampa Bay in Week 13, Olsen ruptured his plantar fascia. He had a second surgery, which included a bone graft, but said he’s not done trying to get back on the field. Carolina wants him back, and healthy, but also has a promising up-and-comer in Ian Thomas, who will enter his second season in 2019.
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▪ The youth movement: Once second-year receiver Curtis Samuel was fully healthy following a heart procedure at the beginning of the season, he joined rookie DJ Moore and running back Christian McCaffrey to form an exciting trio of young, speedy, versatile playmakers who opened up Carolina’s playbook.
▪ What to do with Devin? The Panthers went for smaller and faster receiver combinations more often as the season progressed, and receiver Devin Funchess saw his snaps decrease heavily by the end of the year. He was a healthy scractch in the season finale, and is in a contract year. Funchess wants to be a No. 1 wide receiver, but the emergence of Moore and the versatility and rotation of the Panthers’ receivers, plus his dwindling targets and production, make it unlikely Funchess gets a big extension in Carolina.
On the roster
▪ DJ Moore: A little bit of a late bloomer in his rookie season, Moore hit his stride by mid-season. The Panthers’ first-round pick out of Maryland finished the 2018 season first in the NFL among receivers in yards after the catch per reception at 7.9 according to NFL NextGen Stats. Moore caught 55 passes for 788 yards, 14.3 yards per catch, which means more than half his average came after he caught ball.
▪ Jarius Wright: Wright quietly worked his way into a third-down and crucial-catch situational role for the Panthers after signing in free agency last spring. He caught 43 passes for 447 yards and a touchdown. Wright also averaged 11 yards per catch when targeted on first down, which he was 23 times.
▪ Curtis Samuel: A heart procedure sidelined Samuel for the first four weeks of the 2018 season, but when he came back he was insanely productive in limited snaps. In six games, he scored five touchdowns off just 21 touches. Samuel finished the year with 39 catches for 494 yards in 13 games.
▪ Also: Veteran Torrey Smith has a year left on his contract, which isn’t fully guaranteed. He hurt his knee this season and required surgery, and tried to return at the end of the year in a limited capacity. Smith was signed to be the team’s deep threat, but the offense ranked among the worst in the league on deep pass attempts. Receiver Damiere Byrd went on injured reserve this season for the third time in two years, and is an exclusive rights free agent this spring. Thomas could be a real threat in the red zone if the Panthers don’t bring back Funchess.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Breshad Perriman: Talk about adding speed to an offense. The Panthers got an up-close-and-personal look at the lightning-quick deep threat when Perriman caught a 66-yard bomb from Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield in Carolina’s Week 14 loss. The Panthers brought Smith in as a deep threat but could they explore elsewhere as they try to revive their deep ball?
▪ Golden Tate: Tate’s run-after-the-catch ability and knack for making clutch plays could turn some of the Panthers’ close losses in 2018 into victories in 2019. He’s versatile enough to be on the field at the same time as playmakers such as Moore and McCaffrey, and brings a veteran presence.
▪ Tyler Eifert (TE): This is an option only if Olsen can’t get back on the field in time for the 2019 season. The Panthers will need more options in the red zone, and though he has struggled with injuries, Eifert has historically been one of the better red-zone weapons in the league.
▪ JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford: It’s seriously unlikely the Panthers use a high draft pick on a receiver, with so many needs on defense and after selecting McCaffrey No. 8 overall in 2017 and Moore at No. 24 overall in 2018. But if they do ... Arcega-Whiteside is one of the best high-point and contested-catch receivers available, and just flat-out good. Receivers not named “Moore” struggled with contested catches in 2018.
▪ Marquis “Hollywood” Brown, Oklahoma: Brown is another player in the smaller-and-faster mold that brought the Panthers a lot of success last season, at 5-foot-10. He runs a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. Sheesh.
▪ Anthony Johnson, Buffalo: Johnson is another contested-catch specialist who could step into a role as a red zone and deep threat for Carolina, and will probably be available in mid to later rounds.
The bottom line
It’s unlikely the Panthers spend serious cash on a free agent wide receiver with so much up and coming talent on the roster. But if Funchess doesn’t return, Carolina will want to find a red-zone threat, and that could mean more snaps for Thomas, or could happen via free agency or in mid to later rounds of the draft.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue