It's Time to Stop Complaining about the Carolina Panthers' Wide Receivers
On Thursday night, the Carolina Panthers selected Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin with their late first-round pick. The position was a huge need for Charlotte’s team, but the player selected isn’t said to be one that will have an easy time making an immediate impact on an NFL field.
And some of our numbers back that up. Our own Joe Redemann did a study in early April documenting the success college receivers with bad hands have had in the league, and it wasn’t pretty. Kelvin Benjamin, with a 59.6% catch rate at the collegiate level, fits the mold of a “bad hands” receiver – it may take a lot for him to overcome his awkward receiving flaws.
But that’s not exactly what I’m here to talk about. You see, over the last few months, the Carolina Panthers’ receiving situation has been the focus of many, many jokes. Losing Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. to free agency, at one point the Panthers best receiver was Marvin McNutt, a sixth-round selection in 2012 with a really unfortunate name.
Things have changed since then, as the team has signed a group of veterans in Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant. Though none of those guys should get you out of your seat, they’re still serviceable. And in fact, they may be better than what the Panthers had a season ago.
Yes, I’m fully aware of what Steve Smith has done throughout his career, and the way he was able to rejuvenate his deteriorated self with Cam Newton. But I think we’ve been blinded by the fact that Smiff was on the decline before parting ways with the Panthers, and he’s not the same receiver he was once before.
His numbers tell the story. In terms of Reception Net Expected Points, which measures the number of points added by a receiver on catches only, Smith’s score has declined over the last three years with Cam. And on a per target basis, the last two seasons he’s played have ranked in the bottom five of his 13-year career.
Now, it’s not just the fact that his numbers are declining, but that they’re getting worse with better quarterback play. Since Smith started making an impact in the league in 2002 (12 seasons), the Panthers’ passing units with Cam under center have ranked second, fourth and sixth in terms of Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points. To put this another way, every Cam Newton-led passing offense has been a top half one amongst Panthers offenses since 2002. Mixed in there are the team’s 2005 (ranked first), 2004 (third) and 2008 (fifth) seasons.
As you’ll see from the chart below though, despite just as good of quarterback play, Smith’s efficiency has dipped quite significantly in his later years.
|Year||Rec NEP||Target NEP||Rec NEP/Target|
I removed the 2004 season, which was the third-best Panthers’ passing offense since 2002, because Smith only played one game. But even when you remove it, his 2005 and 2008 campaigns with similarly effective passing offenses were far better than the ones he’s seen with Cam Newton.
You’d expect this to happen – a player gets older and his numbers worsen. But I think there’s this belief that Steve Smith is still somewhat of the Steve Smith of old. If that’s not the case, then why is everyone so up in arms about the wide receiver situation in Carolina? Is it because of the loss of Brandon LaFell and his consistent subpar production? Or is it Ted Ginn Jr.’s departure, even though the seven-year veteran has averaged just 28 receptions per season throughout his healthy career?
The clear problem people have with Carolina’s wide receiver situation is Steve Smith. But guys, over the last two seasons, Smith has barely reached the 50th percentile among 30-plus reception receivers within our Reception NEP per target efficiency metric. And, in fact, over the last two seasons (sample size alert for Cotchery’s 2012 campaign), Jerricho Cotchery has outperform Smith on a per target basis within our Net Expected Points metrics.
I know most Smith backers will roll their eyes at that tidbit because Cotchery was a red zone machine for the Steelers in 2013. But let’s not confuse fantasy football with our Net Expected Points numbers. Cotchery’s play in the red zone – his touchdown scoring – is weighted based on how a player in his position would be expected to perform. Regardless of the number of touchdowns Cotchery scored, he outperformed expectations – he didn’t just do well NEP-wise because he scored touchdowns.
And why fault the man for that? Cotchery’s been an underrated receiver throughout his entire career, and has pretty consistently – all but three seasons – had a Reception NEP per target above Smith’s 0.67 average over the last two years. That’s with some pretty horrible quarterback play, too.
Not only that, but Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant could easily be considered upgrades over Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. Underwood’s big-play ability lifted his Reception NEP per target numbers to top-tier status last year, though you’d expect that number to come back to Earth a bit with some more volume. Even so, field stretcher Ted Ginn Jr.’s best Reception NEP per target campaign came a season ago for Carolina, and his per target efficiency (0.79) was far worse than Underwood’s (0.92) with very similar volume.
Avant is a sure-handed veteran who’s consistently gotten 30 to 50 receptions throughout his career. While his efficiency hasn’t been through the roof, neither has Brandon LaFell’s. In truth, Avant’s career 0.69 Reception NEP per target isn’t far off from LaFell’s 0.72.
All of this is to say that Kelvin Benjamin may not need to make an immediate impact for the Panthers if they want to simply sustain their passing attack’s abilities in the short term. Over the last three years with Cam Newton, the Panthers have ranked 13th, 13th and 16th in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points. Let’s not pretend the group of wide receivers helped Newton catapult the offense into top five territory. Instead, they were merely placeholders that have now been replaced by, well, placeholders.
I don’t think we should really expect the Panthers passing attack to drastically change from where it’s been – a barely above average unit. The real issue people should have is not that the corp is weaker, but the team hasn’t done much to put a group of solid talent around one of the best up-and-coming quarterbacks in the league.
If you don’t like the Benjamin pick, don’t like it because of what he brings to the table as a receiver. Joe’s study breaks that down. But don’t hate on the pick because he needs time to develop – Cam Newton should have plenty of more time in the league, and the receivers he’ll have in 2014 won’t be much different than what he’s had in the past. And if you recall, the past includes a 2013 season where the Panthers went 12-4 and won the NFC South.