The Panthers' wide receiver unit will look a lot different this fall as only two of its current members, Kealoha Pilares and Brenton Bersin, were on the roster at this point last year. Dave Gentleman's decision not to renew the contracts of several of the team's stars, including franchise cornerstone Steve Smith and talented young gun Brandon LaFell, caused a huge controversy in Charlotte and was a topic for discussion around the league. Never before has any team cleaned house so thoroughly at one position as the Panthers did this offseason, and the results of this action will no doubt set a precedent for any team that wishes to try this in the future. The front office did their best to bring in some talent through free agency and the draft to replace what was lost. Let's see how their efforts stack up.
Jerricho Cotchery (11th season, NC State)
Cotchery, who was drafted in 2004 by the New York Jets (4th round, 108th overall), experienced a sort of re-awakening last year in Pittsburgh as he made 46 receptions for 602 yards and caught a career-high ten touchdowns. All of these touchdowns came in the red zone, including three in one game against New England. As the receiving corps' new elder statesman, Cotchery will have to be a leader both on the field and in the locker room. He's dealt with high expectations before, though, as in 2009 after the Jets released Laveranues Coles and he was left to lead a mostly untested group of receivers. He responded by racking up 57 catches for 821 yards and three touchdowns, good enough to lead the team. After that, though, his production declined, and didn't pick up again until 2013. So is the resurgence of Jerricho Cotchery for real, or was last season a fluke? To me it seems like he's doing his best to prolong his career, and at that age the desire to stay in the NFL for a few more years can be a very powerful motivator. Still, it's looking like Jerricho Cotchery has passed the peak of his production. My advice to the Panthers would be to take advantage of what he brings to the table but don't expect to get too far with someone like him as your number one guy.
Kelvin Benjamin (Rookie, Florida State)
The Panthers' first round pick in this year's draft (28th overall) may not have made his mark in the NFL just yet, but he's already done plenty to be remembered back in Tallahassee. In his sophomore year at FSU, he had 54 receptions for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, one of which was the game-winning touchdown in the National Championship. At 6'5" and 240 lbs, Benjamin is a fairly easy target and has already made a few jaw-dropping catches in training camp. However, as talented as he may be, the Panthers likely won't expect a rookie to take on the duties of a number one receiver, which means he'll probably be seen filling the number two or number three spots. I'd say that if the Panthers can find a way to integrate Kelvin Benjamin into the offense without rushing his development, they may have found the next Steve Smith.
Jason Avant (9th season, Michigan)
Jason Avant will probably have a lot to adjust to with his new team as he had been playing for the Philadelphia Eagles since being drafted by them in 2006 (4th round, 109th overall). However, one thing he won't have to adjust to is being the number three guy, which he was last year behind DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. Throughout his career, Avant has mostly flown under the radar, however, in 2010, his teammates voted to give him the Ed Block Courage Award in recognition of the adversity he overcame during his youth. Stats wise, he's a steady contributor, averaging at least eleven yards per catch every season since his rookie year. However, although he started a career-high 13 games last year, his productivity was way down as he caught 38 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns. In the two previous seasons Avant had caught a respective 53 passes for 648 yards and zero touchdowns (2012) and 52 passes for 679 yards and one touchdown (2011). This slump may have been because of the quarterback changes between Michael Vick and Nick Foles, and if that's the case, the Panthers need to make sure he has adequate time to adjust to his third different quarterback in two years.
Tiquan Underwood (6th season, Rutgers)
If you feel like you've heard this guy's name before but can't quite put a finger on it, you probably have. Underwood made news after he was released by the New England Patriots the day before Super Bowl XLVI so they could sign defensive end Alex Silvestro from the practice squad. The Pats would go on to lose the game 21-17 to the New York Giants. Under normal circumstances, the Panthers probably wouldn't have considered offering a contract to a bubble player like Underwood, but these are not normal circumstances. The Panthers needed depth, and that's what they got in the 2009 7th-rounder (253rd overall, Jacksonville) with six career touchdowns. So far, Underwood, who has gained a bit of notoriety among his teammates and the local media for his hi-top fade hairstyle, and looks like he could be a number four receiver on the Panthers’ roster. However, if he underperforms in training camp, (he has a tendency to drop passes) he could also be headed for the practice squad.
Brenton Bersin (3rd season, Wofford)
Brenton Bersin, who went undrafted out of Wofford in 2012, has come out of practically nowhere to become a dark horse for the fifth receiver spot. After spending all of 2013 on the practice squad, he hopes to impress Ron Rivera enough to crack a 53-man roster for the first time in his career. So far, the former Charlotte Latin star seems to be doing a pretty good job.
Kealoha Pilares (4th season, Hawaii)
Known in some circles as The Flyin' Hawaiian, Pilares spent all of 2013 on injured reserve with a torn knee ligament suffered during a preseason game against Baltimore. Before that, he was a force on kickoff returns, returning nine kickoffs for 216 yards in 2012 and 23 kickoffs for 590 yards in 2011. As the Panthers' fifth round pick in the 2010 draft (132nd overall), Pilares also set a new franchise record with a 101 yard return against the Detroit Lions. Now that he's healthy again, Pilares stands a good chance of making the final cut, and there's a good chance we could see him again on kickoff return in 2014.
Tavarres King (2nd Season, Georgia)
King, the Broncos' 5th round pick in 2013 (161st overall), will be trying to keep his spot on the 53- man roster, which looks to be a more difficult task than last year with the emergence of Bersin and Pilares' return. He has never appeared in any regular or postseason games.
Marvin McNutt (3rd season, Iowa)
McNutt, the Eagles' 6th round pick in 2012 (194th overall), spent time on the practice squad in both Philadelphia and Miami before coming to Carolina. He hasn't really done anything notable in training camp so far and is currently considered a stretch to make the roster.
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