The 2018 NFL scouting combine takes place in Indianapolis this week, and it’s a sure bet that the Panthers will take a hard look at the receivers who could provide immediate help for quarterback Cam Newton.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, whose annual pre-combine conference call took place Monday afternoon, said his top route-runners in this draft are Calvin Ridley (Alabama) and Christian Kirk (Texas A&M).
Ridley (6-1, 188 pounds) and Kirk (5-11, 200) excel in creating space, and Kirk has been projected by several analysts to the Panthers at No. 24. Ridley may be long gone.
They would provide an immediate fix for the problems of last season: Lack of separation, lack of precision in route-running, timing issues and some drops at crucial moments.
They’re also versatile, although Mayock said he expects the bulk of their targets in the NFL to come from out of the slot.
The Panthers have a promising option already on the roster at slot receiver in Curtis Samuel.
Injuries hindered Samuel all preseason and ultimately ended his rookie year early. Samuel had ankle surgery and has said he hopes to be back to full health by training camp – but provided no specific timeline. Should the Panthers add some insurance at the position, or go all-in on Samuel?
Mayock said injuries to receivers drafted early in the last three years, among other factors, have led to underwhelming production.
Since 2014, a draft class that featured Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks, 13 wide receivers have been taken in the first round. Only one, Oakland’s Amari Cooper, has been a Pro-Bowler.
“The rest of them have struggled to have any kind of production,” Mayock said. “I think there are really three things. One is the lack of quality press coverage in college football. It’s hard to watch wideouts get challenged realistically at the line of scrimmage on tape. No. 2, it’s whole different coversation about the complexities of NFL defenses versus what a lot of these kids are seeing in college football.
“No. 3 ... on top of everything else, we need to be more aware of any kind of history of injury with the wide receiver class.”
More value, less risk
That might mean more value at receiver is trending in later rounds, with less risk. Mayock cited JuJu Smith-Schuster, who went to the Steelers in the second round, and Carolina’s Devin Funchess as picks who have showed their value despite not going in the first round of their respective drafts.
Receivers who might fall to the second round and who also would fit well for Carolina are D.J. Moore (Maryland) and James Washington (Oklahoma State). A good third or fourth-round option is Penn State’s Daesean Hamilton.
All are fast and explosive. Despite being a little undersized at between 5-11 and 6 feet, all three prospects are sticklers for route-running and detail that helps them win at the line of scrimmage and beyond.
Complementing Cam Newton
Even if targeted prospects have the abilities the Panthers have lacked, Carolina must also ultimately select a receiver whose skill set is complementary to Newton’s.
Mayock says he knows the type.
“In the Carolina offense they lost the guy that they traded last year, Benjamin, that had size and an ability to win outside the numbers on back shoulder throws and contested throws,” he said. “I think that’s what helps out Newton more than anything, rather than the timing, quickness, trying to get the ball out on time, anticipate wideouts.”
SMU’s Courtland Sutton (6-4, 216) gets most of his looks on the outside, and is a big-bodied receiver with good contested-catch and back-shoulder ability that Mayock thinks Newton needs. He’s an early possibility for the Panthers at No. 24 in Mayock’s mind.
Back to the future?
Of course, Carolina traded Benjamin to Buffalo in October specifically because they wanted to get faster, and trusted Funchess to step into Benjamin’s workload. He played well as Carolina’s No. 1 wideout, with 405 yards in five games after before he hurt his shoulder and his production dipped again.
And especially when Samuel and Damiere Byrd got hurt, Newton leaned on rookie running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey in a speedy, timing-reliant and productive role for 80 catches, 651 yards and five touchdowns.
It seems unlikely that Carolina would pivot again so quickly and use a high draft pick to select a receiver similar to Funchess.
But if they want to put Mayock’s theory to the test, there are plenty of later-round big-body receivers in this year’s draft.
“(J’mon) Moore from Missouri, (Equanimeous) St. Brown from Notre Dame, Simmie Cobbs, who is from Indiana, Allen Lazard from Iowa State, Marcell Atemen (Oklahoma State). ... They’re third- and fourth-round people,” said Mayock. “There are a whole bunch of big-body wideouts in this draft, and I think they’re the kind of guys (who) can help Carolina and Cam.”