CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Panthers wide receivers lockers sit in the middle of the locker room on the left hand side right past the quarterbacks and specialists.
There’s a chance come the start of the 2014 season that each of those names hanging above them could have a different one on top.
Brandon LaFell,Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon are all unrestricted free agents. After the season-ending loss, LaFell seemed resigned to this being his last in Carolina. He never evolved into the No. 2 receiver the Panthers so desperately needed, and he’ll likely command more than the cap-strapped Panthers are willing to pay in free agency. Ginn stands the most likely chance to be retained because he provides a deep threat, is great in special teams and will come on the cheap like he did last year. Hixon battled injuries, only had four catches in 2013 and will be 30 next season.
Then there’s the mess going on with Steve Smith — the Panthers all-time leading receiver. It almost seems sacrilegious to think of Smith in any uniform other than the Panther 89, but it’s entirely possible. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said at the combine that "none of us here last forever" and spoke of Smith’s career in the past tense, irking Smith.
The cap hit is $2 million if they release Smith and he’s guaranteed $5 million regardless, but $7 million is a big cap hold for a 34-year-old receiver with 745 yards receiving a year ago. Still, if he won’t take a substantial pay cut to make it work, releasing him definitely sounds like it could be in the cards, despite how crazy it sounds to think of Smith in any other uniform.
It’s doubtful that Gettleman will want quarterback Cam Newton to have all new targets at wide out, but the possibility remains that the Panthers top four wide receivers from a season ago could be heading out of town.
Therefore, where do the Panthers turn? It’s historically risky — and not particularly prudent — to go wide receiver in the first round if you’re looking for instant production. The route concepts are usually so much more complex and intricate that it takes receivers more time than most positions to adjust.
Luckily for the Panthers, this is the deepest receiver draft in recent memory if they decide to venture away from wide receiver with their first round pick and instead go corner, safety or offensive line.
Nevertheless, the options couldn’t be much better if they decide to go wide receiver heavy in the draft.
Panthers fans can dream that have character concerns will drop Watkins — the consensus top receiver on the board — down the board until the late first round. Not happening. At 6-foot-4 with a 4.4 40 with the time of open field moves Watkins has, there’s no chance he falls this far.
Is there anyone more ideal for Cam Newton’s fades than this guy? He’s a mammoth playmaker at 6-5, 231 pounds, but he proved his athleticism is vastly underrated at the combine. Not only did he run a 4.53 40-yard dash, but he also posted a great vertical (37 inches). This might have been a possibility for the Panthers two weeks ago but probably not anymore.
Lee was projected as a top five pick and the top wideout on the board at this time last year, but a subpar junior year filled with injuries has this in question. The 6-foot, 195-pound receiver is a burner and would be the absolute perfect replacement if they decide to release Smith. He could also return kicks, which would fit if the Panthers don’t bring Ginn back. He could fall, but it’s unlikely that Lee drops far enough to get to the Panthers.
The diminutive 5-10, 186-pound Cooks was terrific at Oregon State — 1,730 yards receiving in 2013 — and he proved it wasn’t a fluke at the combine with the second fastest 40 (4.33) and the top 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill. He’s a Tavon Austin, Percy Harvin-type of playmaker the Panthers haven’t had in recent years with Smith’s speed on the decline. He’s a guy that would be terrifying in Chip Kelly’s offense and a playmaker like this opens up everything.
He had a solid combine, solidifying what will likely be a first-round selection. He should come off the board right in the Panthers territory. He’s explosive and should be more ready to contribute than most coming from Cam Cameron’s pro-style system at LSU. Beckham can also return kicks or punts, which would make letting Ginn walk easier. If the Panthers go wide receiver in round one, it’s hard not to see Beckham being squarely in their sights. He’d be the perfect choice to fill the slot.
Benjamin’s a wildcard. Could a subpar combine raise concerns and allow him to fall to the bottom of the second, where the Panthers pick? Benjamin is 6-5, 230-pounds and caught the game-winning touchdown in the national championship game, but he’s had issues with drops and only ran a 4.61. His vertical jump — 32 inches — wasn’t anything to write home about either. But you can’t teach 6-5.
Landry was mentioned a lot as a potential fit in Carolina before the combine but has anyone fallen more since? The 4.77 40 crushed him and he didn’t appear anymore explosive in the other drills. Tape in the best conference in America doesn’t lie, but scouts are going to have a hard time pulling the trigger on him after seeing that 40 time. He could be a steal for the Panthers late in the draft.
Other potential options in rounds two through four at wide receiver are Fresno State’s Davante Adams, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, and Penn State’s Allen Robinson. Adams could play multiple receiver slots but would be making a substantial competition jump. Matthews helped himself at the combine, shutting up people’s questions about his speed with a 4.46. He was extremely productive at Vanderbilt, too, with 1,477 yards last season. Robinson is elusive in the open field and was productive but questions about his speed remain.
There’s options in rounds three through five in Oregon’s Josh Huff, Colorado’s Paul Richardson, Clemson’s Martavis Bryant, and UCLA’s Shaquelle Evans (owner of the catch of the year perhaps). Pro days and private workouts will likely determine how high they go.
Gettleman needed defensive tackles last year in one of the most stacked defensive tackle drafts in recent memory. This year he’s got one of the deepest wide receiver classes in a year he has to secure an infusion of young talent for Newton. Blind luck or not, it’s timely for a Panthers squad in desperate need of young targets for Newton.