CHARLOTTE – The Panthers said they’d like to find a replacement for longtime No. 1 wide receiver Steve Smith in this year’s NFL draft.
The big question is when they’ll do it.
The Panthers have the 28th overall pick, but the NFC South champions have a variety of needs after being hit hard in free agency and could go in a number of directions with their first-round choice.
General manager Dave Gettleman said recently that wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback are among the team’s top needs but qualified that statement by adding he won’t go out of his way to land one.
“When you reach for a position of need you’re in trouble,” he said.
Gettleman said he has some reservations about drafting a receiver in the first round because it often takes them longer to adjust to the NFL game than those who play other positions.
“History tells you that it’s a very difficult position to assimilate into (the NFL), especially with the current game being played at the college level,” Gettleman said.
Gettleman called it a “wide-receiver-heavy” draft that includes several players who’ve put up big numbers. He said the trick is finding guys who can easily make the transition to the next level.
“I’ll look at a guy and he’s caught 90 balls ... but of those, 45 were flash screens,” Gettleman said. “The other 45 he caught, he ran to three spots. So, do they understand coverage? They’re going to have to learn the whole route tree. How long is it going to take them to assimilate? It’s an issue. It’s a problem.”
Smith was released in a salary cap move earlier this offseason. Replacing his toughness and production won’t be easy. He caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns for the Panthers in 13 seasons. After averaging 76 receptions for 1,284 yards receiving and 5.5 touchdowns in his first two seasons playing with quarterback Cam Newton, Smith’s numbers fell off in 2013. He caught 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns.
The Panthers signed free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, but none is expected to become the next No. 1 receiver in Carolina.