It should come as no surprise to those who follow the Panthers with any interest that there is a real chance that the Panthers add a receiver in free agency. While some would like for the Panthers to go after the likes of Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins, both players are likely to attract top-end contracts which not only will the Panthers struggle to find cap room for, but that the players themselves might not totally merit. Watkins and Robinson are both good receivers, but with Robinson coming off a season-ending injury and Watkins’ failure to match his production to his talent thus far in his career, teams should feel at least somewhat hesitant about paying them elite receiver money this offseason; some teams, however, won’t be hesitant at all: there are eight NFL teams with over $50m in cap room this season.

The Panthers aren’t one of them.

This isn’t to say that the Panthers won’t be attempting to sign Watkins or Robinson next week when free agency begins, but there is a vast chasm between attempting and succeeding; should the Panthers be priced out of the top options, Ron Rivera told us last week that the team will still be in the market for a veteran wide receiver.

“It would be kind of cool to be able to find a guy with kind of the background that Jerricho Cotchery had for us in 2015, a guy that had been there and had that kind of success because again, I think that helps the young guys,” said Rivera at the Combine. “It is a pretty young room, so it would be nice to have a guy that’s got that kind of experience.”

A veteran free agent of this type might not be as flashy as the likes of Robinson or Watkins, but would almost certainly have the added advantage of coming at a much lower cost. Fortunately for the Panthers, there are a number of interesting veteran free agent receiver options they could target, but what would some of the more significant options add the to the Panthers’ receiving corps?

Eric Decker

2017 Statistics: 54 receptions; 83 targets; 563 yards; 1 TD. 2017 Cap Hit: $3.85m

After missing most of 2016, Decker had a fairly mediocre 2017 season; his 2018 contract will likely represent that drop-off in short-term production. However, it is worth noting that he is still just two seasons removed from putting up 326 catches for 4341 yards and 41 touchdowns over a four-year span; for three of those four seasons, Decker managed a 80-1,000-10 season with a catch percentage of over 60%, something that happens on average less than three times per season (via Pro Football Reference). This in itself might not mean a huge amount, but the notion of Decker as a top-tier receiver is also backed up by his 2017 tape.

Decker has always been known as a receiver with good hands, and while he doesn’t come up with many circus catches, his ability to come up with catches despite contact is valuable, and is evidenced by plays such as the following:

 

Something Decker isn’t quite so well-known for is his athleticism, and while he isn’t at the top end of receivers in this regard, he has the speed to run away from people in space and be somewhat of a threat with the ball in his hands. Plays like this aren’t going to have scouts spilling their coffee with excitement, but show the ability to be more than simply a pure possession receiver.

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While Decker is able to be effective at times by separating using speed, he quite literally separates himself from the majority of receivers through his route running. Against zone, Decker shows nice cuts which, while not hugely significant on shorter routes where there is usually more space, but on deeper zone beating routes, such as on the second and third of the following plays, this can be the difference between a completion and an incompletion:

 

 

 

Decker also shows a mastery of option routes, such as the following play where he both shows the ability to separate down the field and the understanding of coverages to break out of the route to sit down against zone.

 

Plays like this show not only an understanding of route concepts and coverages but an impressive fluidity and change of direction, especially for a player of the size of Decker. This ability to make sharp cuts was also evident against man coverage, where Decker was able to generate separation at the route head against off coverage using sharp, precise cuts such as on the next plays:

 

 

Against press coverage, Decker uses his 6’3, 214-pound frame to press into the defender and then use his strength to break away at the head of the route to generate just enough separation to make the catch.

 

 

The combination of these skills is rare in the NFL and Decker’s failure to put up larger numbers last season speaks more to the failings for the Titans’ offense than his regression with age. Decker will start next season at 31 and should be both young enough to be expected to contribute at a high level for the near future and old enough to provide the veteran leadership the Panthers seem to be looking for.

Mike Wallace

2017 Statistics: 52 receptions; 92 targets; 748 yards; 4 TDs. 2017 Cap Hit: $8m

As well as talking about adding some veteran experience to the Panthers’ receiving group, both Rivera and Hurney have also talked about wanting to get faster on offense, something that Mike Wallace would certainly provide. While Wallace failed to live up to his free agency billing after signing with Miami back in 2013, he did still manage to produce reasonable numbers, albeit on a huge number of targets. What he has continued to bring, however, was the ability to stretch the field.

 

While Wallace’s numbers in this regard from last season aren’t amazingly impressive, a lot of this was due more to Joe Flacco’s inconsistency than Wallace’s ability to separate vertically.

 

However, while Flacco’s service last season was particularly poor, there is always going to be a risk to come with the reward of throwing the ball deep. As fast as Wallace was, he wasn’t always to get quite so wide open and on plays like the following, it is unrealistic to expect any quarterback to hit the exact window that will allow for a completion with any consistency. On both of the following plays, Wallace generates some separation over the top, but Flacco’s pass isn’t quite good enough:

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What this means is that in order to be effective, Wallace needs to be able to generate separation underneath, and the easiest way for him to do this is to use the threat of his speed to force the defender deep, thereby allowing him to break back to the quarterback, allowing for an easy completion, such as on this play:

 

Wallace also uses his speed in a more simplistic way on these plays, where he is able to generate separation on crossing routes by running away from his defender:

 

 

Of course, this tactic cannot always be applied to routes, and Wallace does occasionally show signs of more nuanced route-running flashes. On this next play, he freezes around the head of the route, causing the defender to stop his feet before breaking outside to generate short-term separation:

 

However, there are relatively few instances of route-running such as the above on tape for Wallace, as all too often, he simply falls back on trying to use his speed to get open. There are also some concerns about Wallance’s hands on tape as there are some straight drops, such as the following play:

 

There are also instances where he is overly reliant on using his body in order to come down with catches:

 

What this means is that when passes are away from his frame or when there is contact at the catch point, he often struggles to come down with the completion.These aren’t drops as such, but rather a failure to generate catches:

 

 

Wallace’s upside is undeniable, and he certainly would bring speed to the Panthers offense, but would bring all the catch issues of Ted Ginn without the route running nuances. That is not to say that the Panthers would not gain anything by signing Wallace, but rather that his skill set is not as developed as some other receivers on the market and that, with Byrd and Samuel on the roster, he isn’t necessarily going to bring many skills to the Panthers’ receiving corps that are not already present.

Terrelle Pryor

2017 Statistics (9 Games): 20 Receptions; 37 targets; 240 yards; 1 TD. 2017 Cap Hit: $6m

After a injury-derailed 2017 season, Terelle Pryor is likely regretting signing a prove-it deal with Washington last season. However, from a Panthers perspective. this decrease in his free agency value could be very useful as he is just a year removed from a 1,000 yard season with the Browns; while his numbers in Washington weren’t hugely impressive, on tape there is a lot more to like than they would suggest, even if there are some negatives as well.

As with Wallace, Pryor has the ability to stretch the field vertically, and while he doesn’t quite have the deep speed that Wallace possesses, the following plays show he was able to get deep last season, even if Cousin’s deep ball accuracy wasn’t always there:

 

 

He also showed the ability to use this speed against zone; by threatening the deep route, he was able to force softer coverage, which then in turn allows him more space to break back to the ball, even if the pass wasn’t on time:

 

While Pryor doesn’t quite have the deep speed of Wallace, he does have some significant advantages in his more natural hands and crisp route running. While Pryor does have the occasional drop, he shows a far greater ability to extend his hands to the ball, which allows him to be far more effective at making catches in traffic. On both of the following plays, he is hit at or around the catch point; by extending his hands away from his frame, is still able to secure the catch:

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However, it is as a route runner that Pryor really separates himself from some of the other speedsters in free agency. Against off-coverage, he uses his speed well to force defenders up the field on in-breaking routes, which allows for quick separation on slants and the like, as seen on plays like this:

 

 

He also shows a very nice comeback move on digs and deep curls, where again, he is able to use his speed to force the defender deep and then break back to the ball; this is not a hugely difficult route to run for faster receivers, but Pryor’s quick change-of-direction is especially good, and bodes well for more complex routes where he will be asked to change direction in this way multiple times:

 

 

What really stands out is how he is able to create separation at the head of routes against tight coverage. On the following play, he subtly fakes the outside route, causing the defender to freeze his feet so that when Pryor breaks inside, he is able to separate easily. Plays like this are hugely applicable on a wide range of routes and can allow for Pryor to function as a short option as well as a deep threat:

 

Pryor is still a relatively inexperienced player as a receiver and his injury last season will likely have tempered some of the excitement around him as a receiver option, which should be of advantage to any team with an interest in signing him. While he might not be the ideal fit with the Panthers in terms of skill set, he shows enough as a route runner to excite teams about his potential to be a very good secondary receiver with the ability to both stretch the field and offer an underneath receiving option. As with the likes of Allen Robinson, his post-injury status will of course be relevant, but if healthy, could be a somewhat forgotten gem of the 2018 free agent receiver class.

It is far from certain that the Panthers will target any of the above receivers, and there is still a chance that they are in the market for one of the bigger names in the free agent class; however, should they not be able to agree to terms with Watkins or Robinson, one of the above receivers might be able to help the Panthers at a lower cost and possibly as a better fit with the rest of the Panthers receivers. In the immortal words of Dave Gettleman, they may not be able to afford the receivers at Tiffany’s, but the guys from Nordstrom might be just the right price.

Game Clips via NFL.com

Vincent Richardson on Twitter
Vincent Richardson
Analyst at Riot Report
Astrochemist, bartender and jazz drummer; I also watch a lot of football. Areas of interest include play design, player evaluation and data-driven analytics. Twitter: @vrichardson444
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