As the Panthers prepare for training camp, we're going to take a position-by-position look at what to expect when they get to Spartanburg. Today we're taking a look at the wide receivers and tight ends.
CHARLOTTE - The Panthers lost a free agent wide receiver who had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year, and didn't add a household name at tight end after getting next to no production there in 2020.
And yet, they're optimistic about the guys who will be catching passes this season, because the floor was already pretty high.
By bringing starters DJ Moore and Robby Anderson back, and adding some parts around the periphery of the offense, the Panthers hope they will be able to diversify the passing game this year.
But it all starts with the starters, who have shown themselves capable of making big plays.
Moore was third in the league last year at 18.1 yards per catch, topping his previous high in receiving yards (1,193) despite catching 21 fewer passes than he did in 2019.
Anderson turned in career bests in receptions (95) and yards (1,096), enjoying his escape from New York.
The Panthers didn't replace free-agent departure Curtis Samuel (career-best 77 catches for 851 yards, with another 200 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground) with a like-for-like player. But they're hoping that the other additions to the offense make up for what they're missing as a run-catch threat.
What's new: Quite a bit, actually.
They found an option to be a competent third receiver in free agency, when they signed their first David Moore of the offseason (no relation to the undrafted rookie offensive lineman of the same name). Moore had 35 catches for 417 yards and six touchdowns for the Seahawks last year, and gives them a bigger body as a third option.
During the draft, they made a bit of a splash by using their eventual second-round pick on Terrace Marshall Jr.. Marshall was prolific at LSU when he wasn't injured, able to stand out in a group that included Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase. Adding Senior Bowl standout Shi Smith in the sixth round was also interesting, as he became a favorite of the coaching staff during their time in Mobile.
They also brought in free agent tight end Dan Arnold and drafted Notre Dame's Tommy Tremble in the third round, reshaping the tight end room immediately. Arnold had 31 catches for 438 yards and four touchdowns for the Cardinals last year, and they think his size and hands could make him an effective player down the seam and in the red zone.
What's old: Moore and Anderson are an unheralded pair, but the numbers speak for themselves. Between Moore's ability to make plays with an odd lot of quarterbacks in his life, and Anderson's previous connection with Sam Darnold, they have every reason to feel good about the receiving corps.
The coaching staff has been bullish on incumbent tight end Ian Thomas this offseason, though he had just 20 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown last year. It's not so much that the position disappointed; it was just a non-factor last season. The fact that Arnold's numbers as a bit player in Arizona eclipsed anything that happened here suggests that there's a decent chance at improvement.
What we know: There's going to be a lot of competition for jobs at both wide receiver and tight end.
Veteran Brandon Zylstra has value on special teams, but there are a load of new faces here which could make his spot far from secure. During voluntary workouts, coaches singled out Ishmael Hyman (who was bumped up the depth chart because of some injuries and absences), and there are a number of young receivers who have the chance to contribute in different ways.
What we don't: What the tight end position is actually going to look like.
They needed a blocker after Chris Manhertz left for Jacksonville, and Tremble has the credentials from college to suggest he can take up some of that slack. And if Arnold becomes the primary pass-catcher at the position, it's reasonable to wonder where that leaves Thomas.
Of the lot of them, Thomas has the best chance to be the all-around player that coaches would love to have, but he hasn't shown it on a consistent basis. The next month will be huge for him if he wants to keep from becoming an afterthought.
What to expect: If Marshall's healthy and ready to go, the Panthers will have more top-end talent at the receiver position than they've had in some time. The Panthers pulled the reins back on the rookie to make sure he was fully healed from some previous issues, and if he's out there, his tape suggests he can be a player.
But even if he needs more time, the Panthers have plenty of targets. They also have some guy named Christian McCaffrey healthy again, and he'll always be a big part of the passing game. So for all the incomings, we're still talking about guys who will be the fourth or fifth option for Darnold in a route, giving them time to see who develops.