Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney has an assignment facing him in the coming weeks.
And it ain’t no arts-and-crafts project, either.
Hurney must build a receivers room that can immediately be a dominating force in the NFL and especially the NFC South, a complete pivot from the past two seasons, when underwhelming production and injuries stalled the group.
“We want to try to add weapons around (quarterback) Cam Newton, to help him maximize all of the skills that he has,” he said in a sit-down with the Observer on Thursday at the NFL scouting combine.
It’s a task of the highest priority for Hurney, and he wants to do it the right way, adding speed and depth – but not redundancy – to the group.
And Hurney actually showed his blueprint for that in October, with the blockbuster trade of big-bodied wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Removing Benjamin, whom Hurney considered nearly identical in style to Devin Funchess, allowed Funchess to flourish in a more natural role and inject more speed than Benjamin.
Hurney wants to apply the same logic all along the line of scrimmage. No two players should have the same skill set.
Instead, they should all complement one another, forming diverse layers that make an offense difficult for opposing defenders to unpack.
Hurney indicated that Funchess is the baseline around which the room will be built.
“We talked a little bit about Devin Funchess moving from the ‘Z’ to the ‘X’ (No. 1 receiver) after the Kelvin Benjamin trade,” he said. “And his skill set, what we ask that position to do, fit perfectly. So now we have the ‘Z’ position. ... You look for ideally a speed guy, a guy who can stretch the field. ... Then you’ve got the slot receiver position that brings a totally different skill set.
“And the more you can diversify all of those skill sets in each position group and then mix them on the field, I think it really makes you stronger as a group.”
That’s the goal: Keep the room complementary, avoiding any two starting players with identical traits, other than a good set of hands and precise route-running.
Oh, and they have to be fast, too. Hurney is determined to continue to add speed to the roster, especially at skill positions.
Another point of emphasis is adding the depth that Carolina sorely missed when speedy receivers Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd got hurt. Samuel had ligament damage to his ankle that required surgery, and he doesn’t even have a recovery timeline yet (though is hopeful to return by training camp).
The Panthers are still looking for their go-to players in both the slot and the “Z” because while they’re excited about Samuel’s potential, he is still unproven and his injury history urges caution.
“I think that right now, we are in a position where we want to create competition there and create depth there,” said Hurney. “We certainly have confidence in all of those guys (currently on the roster).”
Rivera also mentioned that he wouldn’t be opposed to bringing in a veteran wideout, like the team had in Jericho Cotchery in 2015 and still miss in Ted Ginn Jr.
Hurney likes that idea, too. But, he said, it has to be the “right” veteran.
“I think adding a veteran receiver wouldn’t be a bad idea, if the right one is available,” he said.
“Building the room, in any position room, it’s critical to have a veteran leader who can produce on the field and then help develop young guys.”
Baltimore receiver Mike Wallace, 31, is a potential option as that leader. He had 748 yards in 2017 and still can hit the gas pedal nearly a decade after running a 4.33 40-yard dash as a draft prospect. He also has experience playing in an offense constructed by Norv Turner, the Panthers’ new offensive coordinator.
Elsewhere in free agency, Jacksonville receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson are intriguing options, as are the Los Angeles Rams’ Sammy Watkins and Seattle’s Paul Richardson.
It’s likely that the Panthers add to their receiving corps in both free agency and the draft.
Meet the top, best-fitting prospects
▪ Christian Kirk, Texas A&M: Kirk is an explosive talent who has often been projected to the Panthers at No. 24 in early mock drafts. He also hears questions about his ability to play on the outside, after a successful collegiate career in the slot. But he expressed confidence in his ability to line up anywhere – versatility the Panthers would value.
“I just smile, because I know I can do it,” he said Friday. “That has definitely been one of the questions in my formal interviews. I know 100 percent that I can do it. I have the confidence that I can go outside and win one-on-one.”
▪ James Washington, Oklahoma State: Washington’s leave-it-all-on-the-field mentality was refreshing during Friday’s interviews, as he discussed his passion for the game. He also revealed how he became so talented at tracking high points on passes and winning contested catches: He used to play basketball, and had a particular fondness for putback dunks.
Washington had an informal meeting with the Panthers’ staff. He could fit the team’s need at “Z” receiver.
▪ D.J. Moore, Maryland: Moore absolutely beamed when he was told by a reporter that some people compare his game to that of former Panthers star wideout Steve Smith Sr.
“That’s a great comparison,” he said. “Being compared to him is something that’s going to stay with me. He brought passion to the game, physicality and he had the speed to do whatever. Having that comparison will make me go 10 times harder.”
Moore had a formal meeting with the Panthers’ staff. He could fit the “Z,” but can also operate out of the slot.