Panthers looking at overhaul at wide receiver, outside of top three


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The players in this group of Carolina Panthers finished the 2017 season referring to themselves at the misfits. They were such unknowns that some teammates couldn’t name everyone at the position.

Outside of Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd, nobody at this position should feel safe as the 2018 roster takes shape. There could be an overhaul similar to what the Philadelphia Eagles went through last season en route to the Super Bowl.

This brings us to the third part in a position-by-position analysis of the roster.

Next up: Wide receiver

2017 grade: C-minus.

This might be a generous grade. Funchess was the highest-rated Carolina receiver by Pro Football Focus with a grade of 75.2. That ranked 45th at his position in the league. Funchess never rose to the level of a No. 1 receiver after Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo. Injuries hit this position hard and kept players such as second-round draft pick Samuel and Byrd from making an impact. Free-agent signee Russell Shepard was a good presence in the locker room but didn’t make a big impact on the field.

Under contract (2018 salary-cap number): Shepard $3,525,000; Funchess $1,756,647, Samuel $1,466,741; Fred Ross $483,333; Jamaal Jones $480,000; Mose Frazier $480,000; Rasheed Bailey $480,000; Austin Duke $480,000. Total: $9,151,721.

Key free agents: Byrd, exclusive rights free agent; Kaelin Clay RFA, Brenton Bersin, UFA, Charles Johnson, UFA.

The good: Speedsters Samuel and Byrd showed flashes, particularly Byrd. His two touchdown catches in a win against Green Bay showed he is more than just a deep threat. Samuel showed his value as a slot receiver with five catches on seven targets in a Monday night win against Miami. But Byrd played in only eight games and Samuel nine because of injuries. Funchess caught a career-high 63 passes, which surpassed his total (54) from his first two seasons combined. He had consecutive big games against the Dolphins and the New York Jets, combining for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches. He just wasn’t able to sustain that down the stretch.

The bad: Funchess had only nine catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the last four games combined. He couldn’t come up with the big catch at the end in a 31-26 playoff loss to New Orleans. The shoulder injury he played through was a factor, but even before then he hadn’t shown the consistency of a true No. 1 receiver. It gets worse. The Panthers don’t have the luxury of using a fifth-year option on Funchess since he wasn’t a first-round pick. So if they don’t give him an extension before this season and he has a big year, he could price himself out of Carolina in 2019. The overall talent at this position simply wasn’t good enough to help quarterback Cam Newton elevate his game after an offseason of adding players to do that. Without running back Christian McCaffrey, who led the team with 80 catches, the passing game would have been in even more trouble.

The draft: Most draft experts have the Panthers taking a receiver with the 24th pick. They get no argument here. This group needs a major upgrade in ability to make plays and create separation. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley has been pegged as a top-10 or top-15 pick, so don’t look for him to be available. But after him at least one of a group that includes SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Oklahoma State’s James Washington, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk and Florida’s Antonio Galloway should be there. There are others who could climb into the first round, and some of the ones mentioned aren’t first-round locks. This is a better class of second-round receivers than first-rounders.

Final thought: There isn’t a great class of free-agent receivers, which also increases the likelihood that Carolina will go with that position in the first round of the draft. Allen Robinson might be the best of the free agents, but he is coming off a torn ACL and popular opinion has him re-signing with Jacksonville before free agency. The decision to trade Benjamin, the Panthers’ 2014 first-round pick, to Buffalo midseason could come back to haunt Carolina if Funchess doesn’t step up. Benjamin proved with 16 touchdown catches in his first two healthy seasons (’14, ’16) that he was a No. 1 target. As mentioned here at the top, outside of Funchess, Samuel and Byrd, this group could see a complete overhaul.

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