Panthers WR LaFell ready for regular starting role

Brandon LaFell is eager to play a bigger role this year in the

Carolina Panthers’ offense.

And he’s going to get that opportunity.

LaFell, now in his third season with the Panthers, comes in as

the team’s No. 2 receiver and is expected to start alongside

five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith, according to coach Ron

Rivera.

That’s not altogether a new role for LaFell.

He started six games at the end of last season after Legedu

Naanee broke his foot. LaFell played well once he got a grasp of

offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s offense and he knows this

season represents a golden opportunity to establish himself as an

NFL starter for years to come.

”I think last year when Legedu broke his foot Brandon stepped

up,” Rivera said. ”But now he has to step up a little more

because he has to take that pressure off of Steve Smith.”

In last year’s season finale against New Orleans, tight end Greg

Olsen left with an injury and Carolina’s offense almost immediately

went in the tank. The Saints were able to key on Smith and shut

down the high-flying Panthers, limiting them to 301 net yards and

17 points.

”They were able to roll their coverage to Steve,” Rivera said.

”At that point you’d like to see Brandon take over. I think as a

young player he’s still learning how to do things. So this year is

a good opportunity. I think he’s stepped up so far in camp. Now

we’ll see as we get the pads on.”

LaFell knows nothing is given to him.

The Panthers (No. 20 in the AP Pro 32) have several receivers

ready to push him for playing time. Among those are newcomer Louis

Murphy from the Oakland Raiders and David Gettis, who started ahead

of LaFell two years ago before a knee injury sidelined him in

2011.

Gettis is still on the physically unable to perform list and

hasn’t practiced at training camp, but Murphy is beginning to make

his presence known.

”When you got a guy like him come in, and he doesn’t even know

the offense yet but is making plays the first day out there, that’s

going to make you step your game up,” LaFell said. ”So I feel

like I have to stay in my playbook and keep making plays and catch

a lot of balls.”

LaFell had 613 yards receiving on 36 receptions and three

touchdowns last year, with most his success coming later in the

season. He struggled early on to pick up Chudzinski’s complicated

offense after a lockout-shortened offseason.

”To be honest, it probably took until Week 8 or Week 9 to grasp

the whole offense and really go out there and be comfortable,”

LaFell said.

Once he did, he started looking like a force.

He caught 18 passes for 319 yards over the final seven games,

including a 91-yard touchdown reception against Tampa Bay in Week

16 – the longest in franchise history.

That’s something he’d like to build on.

Along with becoming a better downfield blocker LaFell said he

wants to catch more deep balls.

”I feel like I really need to work on creating more

separation” between the defensive back, LaFell said.

With an increased comfort level on offense, LaFell feels as

though the sky is the limit.

”It’s totally different, this camp is just about fine-tuning

things,” LaFell said. ”It’s not like last year or my first camp

where we had a new coaching staffs and we had to learn the playbook

and it took a lot of time to learn things. This year’s about going

over those mental reps and getting better at it.”

Rivera said LaFell wasn’t alone in taking a while to pick things

up.

”There were several guys that took a while to get

comfortable,” Rivera said. ”DeAngelo Williams was another guy we

were concerned with, and you guys (in the media) were killing me

with early last season. But then he started to come along. This is

not a simple offense. That’s the truth to the matter. It took some

guys longer, but when you bring in a new staff there’s a learning

curve to it.”

NOTES: WR Smith was back at practice Wednesday, but rookie CB

Josh Norman (hamstring) and LB Thomas Davis (knee) were held out

for precautionary reasons. … The Panthers were given 24 hours off

after Tuesday morning’s practice and return to work Wednesday night

at Wofford College.

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