One of the major questions for the Panthers coming into the season was who will emerge as the number two receiver opposite Steve Smith? More importantly, will that player produce enough to keep defenses from triple teaming Smith? These same questions seem to linger with the Panthers every year, but they were of particular importance this season as Cam Newton was introduced as the quarterback of the future. Besides, Smith is on the wrong side of 30 and isn’t getting any younger.
After David Gettis went down with a torn ACL weeks before the season began, the Panthers looked upon their depth chart in horror, seeing the names Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards, and Legedu Naanee under “WR2”. All three had shown glimpses of potential in their limited NFL careers, but none stood out as a potential compliment to the greatest receiver in the franchise’s history. It was shaping up to be another typical Panther offense, full of conservative run calls and endless punts.
However, to the surprise of even the deepest Cam believer, Newton came out of the gate firing, opening up the season with two consecutive 400-yard passing games. Even though Smith was on the receiving end of over 300 of those yards, it was clear that the Panthers had developed a passing game that extended beyond simply throwing the ball to 89.
With these tremendous passing numbers, you would think that one of those young receivers stepped up to become a big play guy, right? Wrong. Through three games those receivers have combined for only 12 catches and 177 yards. So how are the Panthers putting up these video game-like passing numbers?
By utilizing a position that has been a revolving door for the Panthers for a large part of the last decade: Tight End. In what are turning out to be two of the most impactful moves of the offseason for any team in the NFC, the Panthers locked up tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen to help take some of the pressure off of those three young receivers. As it turns out, these two have not only taken the pressure off of the receivers, but they have taken away their production as well. Olsen and Shockey have hauled in 21 passes for over 300 yards, including an Olsen touchdown that would prove to be the game winner against Jacksonville in week three.
Olsen and Shockey are not only producing like receivers, but they are being targeted like them too. Through three games, Olsen has been the target of 20 Newton throws, Shockey 15. Olsen is currently tied for ninth in the NFL among tight ends in that category. This is significant because outside of the great Wesley Walls, no Panther tight end has ever reached 500 yards receiving in a season. These two guys have added an extra dimension to the passing game that this franchise hasn’t seen since The Backstreet Boys had a hit song.
With a rookie quarterback running the offense, it is clear coach Ron Rivera has put an extra emphasis on making easy throws to open receivers over the middle. It is also clear that the receivers, outside of Smith, are not the ones getting open consistently.
This weekend, the Panthers will face the Chicago Bears, Greg Olsen’s former team. Expect another big game from the tight ends, as Chicago’s speedy defense will likely force Newton to make quick decisions. And when crunch time comes, Cam trusts the tight ends over the receivers.
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