The Carolina Panthers have been desperately searching for someone to draw attention away from Steve Smith ever since Muhsin Muhammad departed, and they have had more than their share of difficulties. The Panthers tried to solve the problem through the draft by selecting Dwayne Jarrett and Armanti Edwards in the second and third rounds, respectively, but neither player is on the team anymore. The Panthers could have acquired a quality receiver in the past few years with high first round picks but instead chose to address other needs. Those picks have panned out, though, so one can’t really blame the Panthers for those decisions.
The Panthers’ best draft choice at receiver so far has been Brandon LaFell, selected in third round of the 2010 NFL Draft out of LSU. LaFell hasn’t been a star at receiver since joining the Panthers, but he has at least done enough to stay on the radar of Panthers nation. He hasn’t yet been able to crack 700 yards or five touchdowns in a season, but he has steadily improved throughout his career. This year he is set to break out, and he is already starting to make waves with his improved route-running ability and coverage-reading skills.
With Cam Newton‘s penchant for meltdowns in the passing game and Steve Smith’s declining production, the Panthers need a player who can consistently get open and make tough catches. LaFell has improved enough to become he player and has showcased those abilities over the past few weeks. LaFell doesn’t have top-end speed, but he does the agility and know-how to find space. The best receivers know how adjust routes and read zone-coverage to get open, and LaFell has been great at it.
LaFell got open multiple times against the Giants and was able to account for two touchdowns, due in large part to his route-running ability and his ability to adjust to the ball and make clutch catches. Even against the Cardinals when he had that huge drop he was able to make key third down catches, primarily because he read the zone coverage and found the open space, becoming a perfect safety net for Cam Newton. LaFell was huge against the Vikings as well, breaking the 100 yards barrier for the first time in his career. Look for LaFell to gain an increased role in the offense as Newton continues to develop his passing ability, and the Panthers should improve along with him.