Armanti Edwards has been turning some heads at training camp. Can he do it when the real bullets fly? (AP Photo)
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Like most recent training camps, the Carolina Panthers are still in search of a No. 2 wide receiver.
Only this year it’s a little different situation.
The Panthers don’t necessarily feel like they have to find one as much as they have to choose one.
There was a decent battle brewing here at training camp between second-year wide receivers David Gettis, Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards -- and that was before the team added to the mix by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with wideout Legedu Naanee from the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night.
“Heading too Charlotte, can’t wait to meet my new teammates and get to work!” Naanee wrote on Twitter.
He will join the team at practice Friday.
Naanee, a four-year veteran, played in 10 games (starting nine) for the Chargers last year and caught 23 passes for 371 yards and a touchdown. In his previous three seasons he had 40 catches for 375 yards and two touchdowns combined. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Naanee may or may not be No. 2 wide receiver material, but he will challenge the likes of rookie Kealoha Pilares, Wallace Wright, Charly Martin and Trent Guy for a roster spot.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski both worked with Naanee in San Diego.
Coach Ron Rivera, who has developed an early reputation for being forthcoming and honest with his answers, considers Smith the team’s No. 1 receiver but said the No. 2 spot is “up in the air.”
“I think LaFell and Gettis have both shown spurts that they have that kind of ability (to be the No. 2 receiver) and it’s going to be which one takes the bull by the horns and steps up,” Rivera said. “And I think with what Armanti has done, he’s shown us that he deserves an opportunity and we’ll find places to put him on the field. I’m real excited about (Edwards) and real intrigued about his abilities.”
Despite being a sixth-round pick (LaFell and Edwards were third-round picks), Gettis started 15 games last season for Carolina and caught 37 passes for 508 yards with three touchdowns.
LaFell started the season opener for Carolina but injured his hamstring and wound up as the third receiver the rest of the way. Still, he was quite productive in that role finishing with more receptions than Gettis (38) along with 468 yards and one touchdown. He also had a 60-yard run on a reverse.
Edwards, of course, didn’t see much action at all after struggling to make the transition from college quarterback to NFL receiver and punt returner. It’s fair to say he wasn’t a favorite of former coach John Fox.
Gettis was running alongside Smith with the first team early in training camp, but tweaked his hamstring. He said he’ll be back in a few days. In the meantime, LaFell has been taking his spot with Edwards working as the third receiver.
“We all know we are competing,” LaFell said. “We are all friends and brothers, whatever, but at the end of day we’re all competing for playing time.”
Gettis said of his approach: “You just go out there and do your job. When it comes down to it. When a coach tells you to do a play, you do it to the best of your ability and let them worry about where they want you as far as the depth chart is concerned.”
There’s a chance all three could be involved in the offense.
It’s likely Smith will draw plenty of attention again and tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey could draw double coverage when they’re on the field as well, alleviating pressure from the young outside receivers as well as rookie slot receiver Kealoha Pilares.
“We’re going to get more one-on-one coverage,” LaFell predicted. “When you guys like Shock making big plays across the middle it will open up things on the outside.”
The offensive playbook, which LaFell said is three times as thick as last year’s, said there are more opportunities for big plays down the field, but that fans can also expect to see quarterbacks Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen spread the ball around to different receivers.
The big question will be how much that includes Edwards.
He’s been turning heads so far in camp, drawing plenty of praise from Rivera.
Edwards attributes that to working extra hard in the offseason, including spending time with ex-Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad and former NFL punt returner Gary Scott.
“It’s a new start,” Edwards said. “New coaches, new playbook, new year. I’ve put the first year behind me and I’m starting over.”
Edwards admits he wasn’t physically ready to play wide receiver last year and never felt comfortable doing so until the end of last season. He wasn’t about to let that happen again.
“I definitely knew what I was getting into this year, so I was trying to run enough this offseason to be prepared,” Edwards said.
LaFell, who rooms with Edwards at camp, said Edwards looks as different on the field as the does off it, where the former Appalachian State star shaved the dreadlocks he’s had since high school.
LaFell said he knows Edwards is improved and ready to compete.
“He’s way more different,” LaFell said. “Last year we got out of the starting block and he didn’t know what he was doing. Now he knows what he’s doing and he’s running way better routes. He’s catching the ball and using his hands more.”
Rivera said the big test for Edwards will be when the preseason begins.
“Now it's easy, because you know certain techniques that the corners do, certain things that they do well,” Rivera said. “You hear calls, and it tells you what to expect in terms of coverage. When you get a chance to play against competition, when we play against the Giants, it will be a good test. Not just for him but for the other guys.
“What's going to happen is we'll be able to gauge them as far as playing against the competition. That's what we've got to see with Armanti. Last year, everybody talked about he didn't look good in training camp, he didn't do this in training camp. The truth of the matter is Armanti had never practiced like a wide receiver ever. He had always practiced as a quarterback, and it's more stressful. This year, he took it to heart and had a great offseason from what I'm being told. What I've seen here, it looks to me as if he's done those things and he's not fading. His legs aren't dead. Mentally, he's not all over the place.
“This has been a great step that's he's taken, and, hopefully, it will continue. That's what we're hoping, too. That he's not a flash in the pan for the first few days where he's done a lot of good things and now he gets overwhelmed. We're hoping that he can continue to grow and show us that he is growing as a football player.”
That, said Gettis, is good news.
“The more weapons, the better,” he said.