Panthers WR LaFell could start with Naanee injured

(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By STEVE REEDAP Sports Writer

Wide receiver Legedu Naanee missed his second straight day of practice Friday due to Achilles tendinitis in his left leg, meaning Brandon LaFell could make his first start of the season Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

Coach Ron Rivera said Friday he’s ”a little concerned” about Naanee’s status.

LaFell has been the team’s third receiver this season and has 21 catches for 345 yards and two touchdowns, but a starting role would bring new challenges.

Rivera said Naanee has done a good job of downfield blocking for the Panthers and likes that he’s not shy about catching balls over the middle and in traffic while lining up the ”Z” position.

Rivera said that’s something LaFell will need to show he can do.

”Most of Brandon’s big plays have come when the ball needs to be pushed downfield and that’s where he can shine,” Rivera said. ”You look where Legedu’s catches come and they come in traffic, where you see a lot of Brandon’s catches come when he’s going away from traffic.

”We use those receivers differently. It will be interesting to see how Brandon copes with having to run the different types of routes (over the middle) that are required to be run by that position.”

If Naanee is out, the Panthers could also use more two-tight-end packages Sunday with Jeremy Shockey set to return after missing last week’s game because of bruised ribs. Seyi Ajirotutu, Armanti Edwards and Kealoha Pilares could see spot duty as the third receiver against the Colts depending on the package.

The Panthers brought in Naanee as a free agent in August after LaFell and fellow second-year receiver David Gettis initially struggled to pick up Rob Chudzinski’s offensive scheme.

Naanee has been the starter ever since.

Gettis, who started 15 games last year, tore an ACL and was placed on injured reserve. LaFell has since gotten a grasp on the offense, but hasn’t been able to replace Naanee.

Although Naanee hasn’t put up big numbers – he’s tied for 37th in the NFC with 33 receptions with 355 yards and has yet to score a touchdown – Rivera said he’s pleased with what he’s brought to the team in terms of his blocking and his leadership. And he hopes the Panthers will be able to re-sign Naanee when his contract expires after the season.

”I think he’s done exactly what you’d want him to,” Rivera said.

The Panthers have been searching for a No. 2 receiver to complement Steve Smith for seven years.

They’ve tried almost every angle possible, drafting players such as Keary Colbert and Drew Carter, signing free agents Keyshawn Johnson and D.J. Hackett and even bringing back Muhsin Muhammad for a second tour with the club at the tail end of his career. But they’ve never quite found that second receiver to take the pressure off Smith, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, since Muhammad initially left for Chicago in 2005.

But Rivera is excited about the future at that position.

”I like the competition there,” Rivera said. ”It’s a group of guys that I like.”

In particular, Rivera is looking for big things from Gettis, who was starting to pick up the offense before tearing his ACL in a preseason game.

”When I came in I saw Gettis and LaFell not doing the things we were hoping they could do. That’s when I sat down with (general manager) Marty Hurney and (offensive coordinator) Rob Chudzinski and said, `We need to do something,”’ Rivera said.

That’s when they brought in Naanee.

”When we made that move that’s when you saw Gettis and LaFell start to ascend,” Rivera said. ”You can’t put a price on what Legedu meant in terms of helping the guys understand what to do in this offense. It’s one thing to show them on tape, but to have (a teammate) who can sit there and show you, it’s invaluable.”

LaFell started two games a rookie.

Notes: Dan Connor will start Sunday after missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury. However, weak side linebacker Omar Gaither (knee) is doubtful for the Colts game, while linebacker Jason Phillips (calf) is questionable. Rivera said Jordan Senn is expected to fill in for Gaither. … Defensive end Charles Johnson and linebacker James Anderson are probable and are expected to start. … Rookie cornerback Brandon Hogan will likely be inactive Sunday. … The Panthers have lost 12 straight games on the road.