Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Panthers’ pass-catchers could be the most talented of Cam Newton’s career

Panthers’ Moore and Samuel talk about working together as wide receivers

Carolina Panthers' D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel talk about sharing the ball, helping each other to get better, and keeping opposing teams guessing as who is getting the ball.
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Carolina Panthers' D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel talk about sharing the ball, helping each other to get better, and keeping opposing teams guessing as who is getting the ball.

Is this group of Carolina Panthers pass-catchers positioned as the best bunch Cam Newton has ever had to work with?

The potential is certainly there.

Now we wait to see if the production follows.

Newton hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiver either of the past two seasons, and he hasn’t had a true wide receiver put up 1,000 yards since Kelvin Benjamin in 2014. Of course, there was still tight end Greg Olsen and his string of three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns, but at this stage of his career, just keeping Olsen on the field for 16 games is a higher priority.

But one dominant receiver isn’t the way this offense is structured any longer, as general manager Marty Hurney has revamped the Panthers’ stable of pass-catchers the past few offseasons. That meant surrounding Newton with quick, versatile playmakers rather asking him to carry the offensive load alone. An injection of speed was especially necessary as the team looked to move on from Benjamin and Devin Funchess.

So, Hurney invested high draft picks at the position — Curtis Samuel was a 2017 second-round pick, and D.J. Moore was a first-rounder in 2018 — in addition to shrewd veteran acquisitions like Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, and recently Chris Hogan. Altogether, there might not be a single player cut from the Benjamin/Funchess mold left on this roster.

The question now becomes about fit, and how each of the pieces Hurney has acquired is able to adjust to Newton and Norv Turner’s offense. Can Samuel and Olsen stay healthy? Will Moore and second-year tight end Ian Thomas take the next step in their individual progressions?

Potential is one thing. Putting it all together is another.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas (80) catches a touchdown pass over Atlanta Falcons defensive end Brooks Reed (50) in the first half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, December 23, 2018. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Breakout candidate

In the five games after Olsen ruptured his plantar fascia last season, Thomas started making the most of his athleticism, racking up 246 yards and two scores on 25 receptions. With Olsen’s recurring foot injuries the past two seasons, there’s an opportunity for Thomas to carve out his niche in this offense — and to prove he’s a worthy successor down the line.

To be decided in camp

The final receiver spot. Moore, Samuel, and Wright are near-locks to make the roster, and the team also will likely hang onto Smith and Hogan. If the team keeps six receivers — not a given on its own — then seventh-round pick Terry Godwin, speedy returner Rashad Ross, and the big-bodied Andy Levrone will all be competing for that last slot.

Underdog to watch

Godwin. His hands were impressive during spring workouts, especially making catches in the rain with no gloves. That surehandedness, along with anything he can offer in the return game, could be the difference between him making or missing roster cutdowns.

Also keep an eye on...

Olsen. Given his injury struggles the past two seasons — he played just 16 games in 2017 and 2018 combined — there were rumors this offseason that he might bolt for a prime broadcast job. How much he still has left in the tank, and how he’s recovered from rupturing his plantar fascia, will determine how easily the Panthers offense flows this year.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, right, talks with rookie quarterback Will Grier, center, during practice on Thursday, June 13, 2019. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Three bold predictions

Neither Moore nor Samuel records 1,000 receiving yards, but both rack up at least 850 total yards and five touchdowns.

Statistically speaking, last season was the worst of Smith’s career. He bounces back somewhat in 2019, and he’ll score against his former San Francisco team in Week 8.

Olsen and Thomas each record a touchdown catch in the first three weeks of the season.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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