NFC South: Drew Carter
Bobby in Burlington, N.C., wrote to say he loved Cam Newton’s comments at Steve Smith’s football camp and wonders if those two would make a good tandem and if Smith would be a good mentor for Newton.
Pat Yasinskas: Definitely a smart move by Newton to make it clear he wants Smith back. If that happens, Newton has an elite receiver to throw to and that’s a positive. But let’s not go projecting Smith into the role of mentor, a role he’s never embraced. He didn’t exactly help Jimmy Clausen along, and he was never known as a mentor when Carolina had young receivers like Keary Colbert, Drew Carter and Dwayne Jarrett. Smith is very good at going out and catching passes, and he’s always prepared himself well to do that. If Smith decides he wants to stay in Carolina, then Newton will have an excellent target to throw to.
Daniel in Jamestown, N.Y., wrote to ask if it’s na´ve to think Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman can throw so few interceptions every season.
Pat Yasinskas: Freeman threw just six interceptions last season, which is a very low figure. Obviously, Tampa Bay had a very young offense, and as the wide receivers mature there might be temptation to take more chances and go deep more often. That could lead to more interceptions. But Freeman is a perfectionist, and I doubt he’s ever going to be a guy to throw a lot of interceptions. Look back at this story where I talked to Anton Clarkson, Freeman’s private quarterback coach. Clarkson said one of Freeman’s goals is to go through a season without throwing an interception. That’s probably impossible. But if you use that as your goal and come somewhere close, you should be in good shape.
Chris in Augusta, Ga., asks if being exciting to watch helps Drew Brees’ case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Pat Yasinskas: Sure. Let’s be honest. Fans love to watch teams that throw the ball a lot and score a lot of points. So does the media. Brees and the Saints have been entertaining to watch since he got there. He’s brought them national attention and raised the franchise’s profile, and those kinds of things will help him when it’s time to vote on his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Adam in West Virginia asks if Matt Ryan doesn’t stretch the field enough because he’s not an elite quarterback or because he’s the victim of conservative play calling.
Pat Yasinskas: I think Ryan already is an elite quarterback or, at the very least, will become one soon. I believe the Falcons haven’t really let him maximize his talents. I think that’s about to change. I think the coaching staff realizes it’s time to put more on Ryan’s shoulders. That’s part of the reason they went out and got Julio Jones. Last year, Roddy White was Atlanta’s only real downfield threat. Defenses knew that and gave White lots of attention. The other receivers couldn’t make big plays, and Ryan frequently was left to throw short passes to tight end Tony Gonzalez. I think the arrival of Jones and a conscious effort by the coaching staff will lead to more big plays from Ryan.
You’re going to see a whole bunch of rookie wide receivers starting or playing a lot. That’s rare because there’s a school of thought, and most NFC South teams have backed it up through the years, that you shouldn’t ask too much of rookie receivers too soon.
We’re almost certainly going to see at least three rookies start at receiver for NFC South teams on Sunday and a fourth will get considerable playing time. A fifth might even be active for the first time in his career. In Week 5 of the NFL season, it’s kind of amazing that NFC South teams are leaning so heavily on rookie wide receivers, especially when not a single one of them was a first-round draft pick.
Tampa Bay’s been starting Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick, since the start of the season. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris hinted strongly during the bye week that second-round pick Arrelious Benn will get increased playing time going forward, probably splitting time with second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs play at Cincinnati on Sunday.
In Carolina, it appears highly likely the Panthers will start two rookies at receiver on Sunday against Chicago. They likely will go with third-round pick Brandon LaFell and sixth-round pick David Gettis as the starters. Armanti Edwards, who is converting from playing quarterback in college, might be on the game-day active list for the first time this season.
In Carolina, this wasn’t exactly the plan. The Panthers, who traditionally have been very patient in playing young receivers, wanted LaFell starting as a rookie, but they thought Gettis and Edwards would have time to develop. But that’s all changed because the Panthers are likely to be without Steve Smith due to an ankle injury. They cut veteran Dwayne Jarrett after he was charged with driving while impaired Tuesday morning. The rookie receivers will be working with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
While putting rookie receivers around a young quarterback might sound like a formula for disaster, that’s actually the plan the Buccaneers have had since draft day.
“We made the conscious decision to draft these young guys and let [quarterback] Josh [Freeman] grow with them," Morris said.
Morris then pointed to the New Orleans Saints and how they let a young crew of receivers grow up around Drew Brees. Not a bad example, although Brees had been a starter in San Diego before coming to New Orleans in 2006. Freeman’s only been starting since the second half of last season.
“They, and I’m talking the wide receivers and Josh, always talk about growing up together," Tampa Bay receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “We talk about that as a staff. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but eventually these guys are going to become big-time players in this league."
Williams already has shown promise. In three games, he has 12 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Although Benn was the higher draft pick, he hasn’t been much of a factor so far after missing some preseason time with an injury. But the Bucs are saying that’s about to change.
Still, is it wise or even productive to rely on rookie receivers so early? History has shown it’s a position that often takes time to grow into. Atlanta’s Roddy White, now the best receiver in the NFC South, didn’t really produce until his third year and he was a first-round pick. Smith spent a year as a kick returner before even getting a chance at wide receiver. Then, there’s a pretty lengthy list of guys who never really developed.
Carolina drafted Jarrett, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and got very little from them. Tampa Bay used early picks on Michael Clayton and Dexter Jackson. Clayton had a big rookie year, but did nothing after that. Jackson never even made an impact and couldn’t make Carolina’s roster in the preseason.
Yarber admits there are challenges to playing rookie receivers right away.
“It is difficult because of the physicality on the outside against bump and run," Yarber said. “The guys in college are going against maybe one good DB that’s physical. On this level, every DB they face is physical and good at rerouting you. They’ve got to get used to the physicality on the outside.’’
But it’s far from just being a physical thing. The Panthers have been historically hesitant to play rookie receivers too much because they believe the mental adjustment takes time. In four seasons, Jarrett never was able to grasp the playbook. They don’t have much choice but to go with rookies now.
In Tampa Bay, the choice was made deliberately. The Buccaneers let veterans Antonio Bryant and Mark Bradley go to clear the way for Williams and Benn. They held onto Clayton through the preseason, but cut him once they were comfortable with the way the rookies were progressing.
Still, the Bucs admit their receiving corps is very much a work in progress and that affects the entire offense.
“You have to scale back a little bit," Yarber said. “You want to get them out there, but you don’t want to give them too much. That’s when you get to paralysis by analysis. They’re thinking so much that they can’t play fast. You need a happy medium that you don’t taper the offense down too much, but you don’t want to put too much in so that they’re thinking too much and they don’t play fast.
“One thing that can be a detriment to young guys early on is if you give them too much, they can lose confidence. You don’t want to give them too much too soon. You want them to have some success that they can build on and develop confidence and play better."
For better or worse, much of the NFC South is turning to rookie wide receivers.
Besides Steve Smith, who is going to catch passes for the Carolina Panthers?
Seems we ask that same question every year, or at least every year since Muhsin Muhammad left the Panthers the first time. The Panthers have turned to guys such as Keyshawn Johnson, Keary Colbert, Drew Carter and Dwayne Jarrett and none have really worked out. Muhammad, in his second stint with Carolina, did all you could ask of an aging receiver, but still didn’t produce like a true No. 2 and wasn’t able to take defensive attention away from Smith.
We won’t know for sure until the fall, but there are at least reasons for optimism. LaFell comes with good size and speed and he was productive in a program that wasn’t a passing machine on offense. Colbert and Jarrett were very productive in college too, but that might have had more to do with the fact they were playing for an offensive factory at USC than with their abilities.
Edwards was a quarterback at Appalachian State, but the Panthers plan to use him as a slot receiver. That might suggest that it may take some time for Edwards to learn a new position. Plus, the Panthers' history under John Fox shows a trend of going very slowly with young wide receivers.
But it looks like all that’s about to change, and LaFell and Edwards could get a chance at big playing time right from the start. The mere fact the Panthers used an early pick on a slot receiver means they’re serious about doing more with that position. That is long overdue and it will bring the Panthers in step with the rest of the NFL.
The days of bringing rookie receivers along at a painfully slow pace in Carolina may be over. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney know they have to win now and they drafted these two guys with the idea of playing them sooner than later. Besides, there aren’t any other real options on the roster. Jarrett’s still around, but he really hasn’t shown much of anything.
Smith is screaming for help and he just might get it. One other thing to keep in mind, and this is highly significant, is the change at quarterback. Jake Delhomme locked onto Smith way too much and used him as a crutch. That hurt all of the other receivers.
Delhomme is gone and Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen will be the quarterback. They’ll still want to get the ball to Smith, but he no longer is going to be the only option in the passing game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas