NFC South: Legedu Naanee

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Earlier Tuesday, I included Carolina wide receiver Brandon LaFell on a list of breakout players for the NFC South.

I based that pick on a couple of things: First, the Panthers didn’t go out and bring in a veteran receiver after letting Legedu Naanee depart via free agency. Second, I’d heard from some people in the organization that LaFell had been having a nice offseason.

But I feel even better about putting LaFell on that list after watching him practice in Tuesday’s minicamp session and interviewing him afterward. LaFell seemed to get most of the work opposite No. 1 receiver Steve Smith with the first-team offense.

Then, I spoke to a third-year pro who sounded like he has every intention of winning a full-time starting job.

“My whole mind-set is to do everything I can so that they don’t have to make a decision for me to split time with anybody else,’’ said LaFell, who backed up Naanee at times last year and shared time with him at other times. “I want the No. 2 spot to be mine, so I’m doing everything I can to solidify that.’’

So what does LaFell have to do to solidify that spot?

“Keep making plays,’’ said LaFell, who finished last season with 36 catches for 613 yards and three touchdowns. “Know my assignment. Go up and get the ball. Catch every ball. Make every block and do everything I can.’’

So far, it sounds like the coaching staff is seeing all those things -- and more -- from LaFell.

“He looks much more comfortable,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “In fact, you see him helping other guys. You see him working with the younger guys. You see him working very well with Steve and (tight end) Greg Olsen. I think his rapport with (quarterback) Cam (Newton) is developing very quickly. That’s what we need -- that other guy to step up and be that other guy that’s going to stress the defenses that we face. As he develops and becomes a better and better football player, we may see even more things from Steve.’’

Minicamp hot spots for Panthers

June, 11, 2012
I am on my way to Charlotte, where I’ll be covering the Carolina Panthers in minicamp on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But let’s do a quick preview now and take a look at some of the hot spots facing the Panthers in minicamp.

Legedu Naanee's heir apparent? You simply don’t replace a receiver like Naanee. You just quickly stick someone else in the starting lineup and hope he can help everyone forget about Naanee, who might have been the league’s worst starting receiver last season. Naanee somehow was chosen to start in 10 games last year and responded with 44 catches for 467 yards and one touchdown, but his numbers weren’t even as good as they sound. Naanee was pretty much a liability opposite Steve Smith. Brandon LaFell was the starter in the other six games and he’s the guy the coaches and front office would like to see in the starting lineup on opening day. But that’s not guaranteed. LaFell has to play better and more consistently than he did in his first two seasons. The guy has potential and this is a critical year for him. But LaFell isn’t guaranteed a starting job. He has to win it and that might not be easy. David Gettis showed strong promise as a rookie in 2010, but missed last season with an injury. If Gettis is healthy, he has a chance to beat out LaFell.

Cam’s cameo: Obviously, I saw all of Cam Newton's games during his remarkable rookie year, but I’ve only seen him practice a handful of times. That came on the first two days of Newton’s rookie training camp. The lockout had just ended and he was learning the playbook and getting to know his teammates. He looked good at times and like a rookie at others. After seeing him do some rare things in games, I expect to see even more of that on the practice field. Newton’s obviously a rare athlete. In some ways, he has a chance to be like Smith. The wide receiver is the only guy I ever have covered on a regular basis that doesn’t surprise me when he makes spectacular plays in games because I’ve seen him make some even more spectacular ones in practice.

The Tolbert Factor: The Panthers spent a good chunk of money when they signed Mike Tolbert in free agency. That stunned some people because Carolina already was loaded at running back with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. But the Panthers have said the plan is to use Tolbert at fullback, while also praising his versatility. I’m sure we will see Tolbert some at fullback. But I’ve got a hunch he’s going to be moving around a bit, lining up at tailback at times and catching some passes no matter where he lines up.

Panthers: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
Let’s continue our NFC South look ahead to free agency with the Carolina Panthers.

We'll take a look at Carolina’s potential free agents. They’re all unrestricted unless noted as restricted free agents or exclusive-rights free agents.

Quarterback Derek Anderson, linebacker/defensive lineman Antwan Applewhite, offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau, linebacker Dan Connor, linebacker Omar Gaither, cornerback Cletis Gordon, offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, long-snapper J.J. Jansen, receiver Legedu Naanee, linebacker Jordan Senn, tight end Jeremy Shockey, receiver Seyi Ajirotutu (exclusive rights), tight end Richie Brockel (exclusive rights), cornerback R.J. Stanford (exclusive rights), linebacker Thomas Williams (exclusive rights), linebacker Jason Phillips (restricted) and guard Geoff Schwartz (restricted).

There’s not a single guy on that list that the Panthers absolutely have to have back. That's good because the Panthers are going to be tight against the salary cap. But there are several players they’re likely to have interest in retaining at the right price. They liked what Senn and Applewhite showed in 2011. Shockey seemed to fit well in tandem with Greg Olsen and could return for a one-year contract. The offensive line is in pretty good shape, but the Panthers likely will keep either Schwartz or Hangartner as a starting guard.
His 2011 season wasn’t as spectacular as his 2010 rookie campaign, but Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams still was on the field more frequently than any other NFC South wide receiver.

Williams took part in 94.5 percent of Tampa Bay’s offensive snaps. He was on the field for 965 of Tampa Bay’s 1,021 offensive plays.

Carolina’s Steve Smith and Atlanta’s Roddy White each played more snaps, but came up short of the percentage of plays Williams was in for. Williams’ percentage of playing time ranked No. 4 in the NFL.

Smith ranked No. 7 in the NFL, taking part in 91.4 percent of Carolina’s snaps. He was on the field for 956 of Carolina’s 1,046 plays. White was involved in 90.5 percent of Atlanta’s offensive plays. He was on the field for 1,020 of Atlanta’s 1,227 offensive snaps.

Let’s take a look at some other NFC South receivers and the playing time they got in 2011:

Best hands in the NFC South?

January, 12, 2012
We have a tie when it comes to the best hands in the NFC South.

New Orleans’ Marques Colston and Tampa Bay’s Preston Parker each had a 97.6 catch percentage during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the catch percentages for wide receivers around the division:

Checking the injuries that matter most

December, 30, 2011
The final injury reports are out for Sunday’s games, so let’s take a look at the most significant injuries around the NFC South.

The Falcons are listing linebacker Stephen Nicholas (toe) and receiver Kerry Meier (groin) as doubtful. The Falcons have been getting linebacker Spencer Adkins ready to start this week. Defensive end Ray Edwards (knee) and cornerback Brent Grimes (knee) are questionable. Edwards participated in practice on a limited basis Friday, but Grimes did not. Backup quarterback Chris Redman also is listed as questionable.

The Buccaneers have ruled right tackle Jeremy Trueblood out with a concussion. Receiver Arrelious Benn (neck), defensive end Michael Bennett (toe), defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee) and defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle) are listed as questionable. Benn and Haynesworth did not practice Friday while Price and Bennett participated fully.

The Panthers have ruled receiver Legedu Naanee (foot), defensive tackle Andre Neblett (concussion) and safety Jordan Pugh (concussion) out for Sunday. Defensive end Charles Johnson (back) is listed as doubtful and did not practice all week.

The Saints said running back Mark Ingram (toe) and receiver Lance Moore (hamstring) will be out Sunday. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (neck) are questionable and practiced on a limited basis.

Best hands in the NFC South?

December, 22, 2011
He’s a backup wide receiver on a losing team. But, at least statistically speaking, Tampa Bay’s Preston Parker has the best hands in the NFC South.

Parker has a division-best 97.2 wide-receiver catch percentage (receptions divided by receptions plus drops). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Parker has just one drop while being targeted 53 times and making 35 catches. He slightly edges out New Orleans’ Marques Colston and Carolina’s Brandon LaFell for the division lead after 14 games.

Here’s a look at the catch percentages for the rest of the division’s receivers after Parker:
  • Colston: 97.1
  • LaFell: 96.9

NFC South players not signed for 2012

December, 22, 2011
A lot can change between now and the start of free agency and I sure don’t see any way the New Orleans Saints let quarterback/King Drew Brees walk away. I also think there’s a pretty good chance tight end Tony Gonzalez can return to the Atlanta Falcons if he chooses. Same for cornerback Ronde Barber with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and maybe even Jeremy Shockey with the Carolina Panthers.

But all we know about those guys at the moment is they’re not under contract for 2012. We’ll do much more on free agency as it gets closer but I’ve got the complete list of every NFC South player presently not under contract for 2012.

I’ll list them by team here and we’ll only go with the guys who have at least four years of service and can become unrestricted free agents. We’ll deal with restricted and exclusive-rights free agents at another time.

Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, tight end; Reggie Kelly, tight end; Todd McClure, center; Mike Peterson, linebacker; John Abraham, defensive end; Joe Zelenka, long-snapper; Chris Redman, quarterback; Kirk Chambers, offensive line; Kelvin Hayden, cornerback; Brett Romberg, offensive line; James Sanders, safety; Jason Snelling, running back; Kroy Biermann, defensive end; Thomas DeCoud, safety; Harry Douglas, receiver; Brent Grimes, cornerback; Curtis Lofton, linebacker; Eric Weems, receiver.

Carolina Panthers: Jeremy Shockey, tight end; Reggie Wells, offensive line; Derek Anderson, quarterback; Geoff Hangartner, center/guard; Omar Gaither, linebacker; Cletis Gordon, cornerback; Legedu Naanee, receiver; Antwan Applewhite, linebacker; Mackenzy Beranadeau, offensive line; Dan Connor, linebacker; J.J. Jansen, long-snapper; Jerome Felton, fullback; Jordan Senn, linebacker.

New Orleans Saints: John Kasay, kicker; Drew Brees, quarterback; Shaun Rogers, defensive tackle; John Gilmore, tight end; Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle; Marques Colston, receiver; Pat McQuistan, offensive line; Courtney Roby, receiver; Leigh Torrence, cornerback; Jeff Charleston, defensive end; Turk McBride, defensive end; Robert Meachem, receiver; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, linebacker; Carl Nicks, guard; Tracy Porter, cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, cornerback; Earnest Graham, running back; Sean Jones, safety; Connor Barth, kicker; Geno Hayes, linebacker; Josh Johnson, quarterback; James Lee, offensive line; Corey Lynch, safety; Elbert Mack, cornerback; Frank Okam, defensive tackle; Micheal Spurlock, receiver; Jeremy Zuttah, offensive line.

Best hands in the NFC South?

December, 14, 2011
We have a new leader in NFC South catch percentage for wide receivers and the name probably will surprise you.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’s Tampa Bay’s Preston Parker, who is ninth in the NFL with a 97.2 catch percentage (receptions divided by receptions plus drops). Parker has 35 catches with only one drop. Hey, there’s a stat that actually is positive for the struggling Buccaneers.

Carolina’s Brandon LaFell (31 receptions with one drop) is tied for No. 11 at 96.9 percent. New Orleans’ Marques Colston (58 receptions with two drops) is No. 13 at 96.7 percent. New Orleans’ Devery Henderson is tied for No. 17 at 96.3 percent (26 catches with one drop).

Parker, LaFell, Colston and Henderson are the only NFC South receivers in the top 20 in this category.

Here’s a look at where other NFC South receivers stand:

Around the NFC South

December, 10, 2011
A look at the top Saturday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

Former Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora reportedly will be the next coach at UCLA.

The New Orleans run defense, which has played well of late, faces a huge two-game challenge. The Saints will face Tennessee’s Chris Johnson on Sunday and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson next week.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan has been hit 65 times. Only five teams have allowed their quarterbacks to be hit more.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who plays the Falcons on Sunday, had his lowest NFL passer rating in the Week 6 contest against Atlanta.

Scott Fowler points out that one thing the Panthers haven’t done this season is beat a big-time quarterback. Their wins have come against Curtis Painter, Josh Johnson, John Beck and Blaine Gabbert. They’ll have their shot against Ryan on Sunday.

Tampa Bay coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris already has said the Bucs will simplify what they do on defense. Now, offensive coordinator Greg Olson said the Bucs will scale things back offensively. I guess the only question left is if the Bucs will scale back what they do on special teams?

Tampa Bay safety Sean Jones was fined $20,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Carolina’s Legedu Naanee last week.

Best hands in the NFC South?

December, 8, 2011
Who has the best hands in the NFC South?

Well, if you go strictly by the numbers, the answer would be Lance Moore, Preston Parker and Brandon LaFell. They lead the NFC South, and are among the league leaders in wide receiver catch percentage (receptions divided by receptions plus drops), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

New Orleans’ Moore leads the division with a 97.6 percent catch rate. He’s been targeted 58 times, has 41 receptions and just one drop. Tampa Bay’s Parker is just behind him at 97 percent, with 32 receptions and one drop on 48 targets.

LaFell is at 96.7 percent with 29 catches and one drop on 41 targets. New Orleans’ Marques Colston (96.2) is the only other NFC South receiver with a catch percentage above 95.

Here’s a look at where some other NFC South receivers stand in this category:
  • Mike Williams, Buccaneers, 89.1 percent

It's time for Brandon LaFell to start

November, 25, 2011
The Carolina Panthers could have a shakeup in their starting lineup Sunday and this one might be overdue.

Receiver Legedu Naanee (Achilles tendinitis) missed his second straight day of practice Friday. That could clear the way for second-year pro Brandon LaFell to get his first start of the season.

Even before Naanee’s injury, a lot of Carolina fans wondered why he continued to start ahead of LaFell, a third-round pick last year. I’ve been wondering the same thing since LaFell has shown some promise in a backup role and the veteran Naanee never has been a standout.

Maybe the coaching staff didn’t think LaFell was ready to start. But the Panthers are in a position where it’s time to find out what they have in LaFell. Carolina obviously isn’t going to the playoffs and it’s time to take an extended look at some young players.

LaFell is the classic example of that. Even if Naanee gets healthy, the Panthers should start LaFell the rest of the year. The coaches need to know if LaFell can be the starter opposite Steve Smith. At the very least they want to find out if he can be a good No. 3 receiver if David Gettis returns from injury and claims the starting job next season.

Along those same lines, starting LaFell the rest of the season could allow the Panthers to give more playing time to rookie Kealoha Pilares and second-year pro Armanti Edwards. Those two have been used almost exclusively in the return game.

The Panthers knew Edwards was going to be a project when they drafted the former college quarterback last year. They thought he could develop into an explosive return man and wide receiver.

So far, Edwards has been just a return man and not a great one. The Panthers need to start taking a look at Edwards as a wide receiver even if it’s just in spot duty. If Edwards can show a little promise, he’ll come to training camp next year with a chance to be a contributor at receiver.

If he doesn’t show much promise, Edwards might not even be with the Panthers when training camp rolls around.

The Panthers also said linebacker Omar Gaither is doubtful for Sunday’s game with Indianapolis.

Wrap-up: Titans 30, Panthers 3

November, 13, 2011
Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 30-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: A few weeks ago, when the Panthers defeated the Washington Redskins, it looked like this young team had a great opportunity to turn the corner. Home games with the Vikings and Titans were coming up and they looked winnable. Instead, the Panthers lost them both. They’re 2-7 and the early hope that rookie quarterback Cam Newton brought is fading a bit. Earlier in the season, it looked like the Carolina offense could score against anyone. But the Panthers couldn’t even get into the end zone against the Titans.

Slump busters: There will be a lot of stories about how Tennessee running back Chris Johnson snapped out of a season-long funk as he rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown. I wouldn’t go declaring that Johnson’s slump is over. I’d make the case that he was simply going up a defense that can’t stop the run.

Nobody’s coming to the rescue: Perhaps the most discouraging thing about the rest of the Carolina’s season is that it’s highly unlikely the defense is going to show any signs of improvement. Season-ending injuries to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards were beyond devastating. The Panthers simply didn’t have much depth behind him. The defensive problems can’t be fixed until next year, when some of the injured players return and the Panthers have a full offseason to reload their defense.

This is never a good sign: Legedu Naanee led the Panthers with eight catches for 75 yards. Naanee’s not a threat. Steve Smith, who is a huge threat, was held to five catches for 33 yards. He’s been outstanding all season, but Smith didn’t have a catch go for more than 15 yards on Sunday.

What’s next: The Panthers travel to Detroit next Sunday to play the Lions at Ford Field.

Time to vote for Pro Bowl

October, 25, 2011
Pro Bowl balloting has begun.

Since we often talk about how the NFC South sometimes gets overshadowed by teams in bigger markets, let me urge you to go vote. This is your chance to make a difference.

I won’t tell you who to vote for. That’s up to you. But I will point out a few items I noticed as I scanned the ballot.

New Orleans’ Darren Sproles isn’t on there as a running back (he is on there as a kick returner). Neither is Mark Ingram, but Pierre Thomas is on the ballot.

New Orleans receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem are on the ballot, but Lance Moore is not. I realize New Orleans has an abundance of receivers and the NFL has to be diplomatic. But, the flip side of this is, Carolina’s Legedu Naanee is on the ballot. I’ve got a little problem with that one.

Tampa Bay fullback, Earnest Graham, who had been playing some tailback, is on the ballot. Graham’s about to go on the injured reserve list.

New Orleans defensive end Will Smith is not on the ballot. Teammates Cameron Jordan and Turk McBride are on the ballot. Have to wonder is Smith’s two-game suspension to start the season might have made the people who pick who goes on the ballots forget about him?

Then again, Tampa Bay free safety Tanard Jackson, who was suspended for the first five games, is on the ballot.

NFC South struggling downfield

October, 20, 2011
When it comes to not completing passes downfield, several NFC South quarterbacks and receivers have the market cornered this season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, four of the five worst completion percentages on passes of more than 10 yards downfield are from the NFC South. This includes only receivers who have had a minimum of 20 such targets.

Carolina’s Cam Newton and Legedu Naanee are worst in the league at 23.8 percent. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and Mike Williams are second at 26.9 percent.

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are third worst at 30 percent. Ryan and Roddy White are No. 5 at 38.5 percent. Last season, Ryan and White connected on 57.4 percent of passes of more than 10 yards.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and receiver Plaxico Burress are the only non-NFC South tandem among the top five. They’ve connected on 34.8 percent of their passes of more than 10 yards.