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Camp Countdown: Wide receivers

Posted Jul 23, 2009

Smith
Steve Smith high-steps it during OTAs. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


CHARLOTTE -- It was not the way it always had been, but seemingly as it was meant to be.

Steve Smith on one side. Muhsin Muhammad on the other. Even though they had been on separate teams for three years, their reunion as the Panthers' pass-catching pair last season went without a glitch. Smith returned to the Pro Bowl and averaged over 100 yards per game for the first time in his career; Muhammad had his best reception and yardage tallies since before he left for Chicago in 2005.

Once more, they were among the most electric couplings in football. Their abilities complement each other perfectly, just as they did when they teamed up as the starting tandem through the majority of the 2002 and 2003 campaigns.

Muhammad

Muhsin Muhammad: same as he ever was. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


What Muhammad and Smith can do, the Panthers know well; it was essential to their 12-4 season last year and will likely be just as vital as they attempt to take the final steps to the club's first world championship. However, a central figure of the receiving corps during training camp could be third-year wideout Dwayne Jarrett.

Year three is often where a young pro's road forks. But there are indications that he will head down the path toward long-term success; his promise manifested itself in his limited opportunties last year, as six of his 10 receptions came on third downs and another allowed for a successful fourth-and-6 conversion.

"There were flashes," quarterback Jake Delhomme said.

Jarrett

Like this pass during OTAs, a larger role is in Dwayne Jarrett's sights this year. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


Added head coach John Fox: "He's a young player that, hopefully, makes great leaps and bounds this year. I saw some progress last year and anticipate seeing one more year of growth again this year."

Last year, he was dueling with free-agent signee D.J. Hackett for playing time behind Smith and Muhammad. This year, with Hackett released, the No. 3 slot is in his hands -- and perhaps more opportunties await if he proves worthy of them and can deliver on his potential.

"I don't think there's any doubt," said Delhomme, who sees an allegory for Jarrett in one of last year's stars.

"I think a prime example for him would be someone like DeAngelo (Williams). DeAngelo was a first-round pick for us and for a couple of years, the '06 season, he was playing a little bit, then had a high ankle sprain against Cleveland. So he's going into his third year (in 2008), and then we draft Stewie (Joanthan Stewart) in the first round, so obviously outside this place, there were questions about whether DeAngelo was the guy. Well, that wasn't it. You need as many good players as you can and certainly he came on as the season progressed.

"I have high hopes, I really do. If I didn't have high hopes for (Jarrett), I wouldn't be hard on him. I think I was the same way with DeAngelo. ... (Jarrett) can really and truly help us, and I expect him to help us."

But Jarrett knows he must improve to be of stellar use.

"You always try to get better every year," Jarrett said. "Each year you try to redeem yourself and get better. The NFL is what have you done for me lately, so you have to keep working at it."

WHILE JARRETT'S PROGRESS WILL BE WORTH MONITORING in Spartanburg, the most heated competition should come from a collection of young receivers grappling for roster spots in a scrum that could come down as much to special-teams value as receiving proficiency.

Two -- Jason Carter and Ryne Robinson -- return from knee injuries that scuttled their 2008 campaigns before they began. Robinson went down five days into training camp and never saw the playing field after that; he went through a few practices in September but was ultimately placed on injured reserve.

Robinson returned to the field for organized team activities, taking part in half of the practices as he completed his recovery from injury.

"I think he's ready," Smith said. "He's done it in offseason conditioning. He's coming out here and he's practicing hard."

Carter's premature end was more decisive; a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason win over Washington wiped out what appeared to be a promising year.

"(Carter) could definitely be an impact player," Muhammad said.

Carter

Wide receiver Jason Carter. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


Ironically, it was Carter who took over at punt returner when Robinson succumbed. Eventually the Panthers signed ex-Buccaneers and Chargers wideout Mark Jones to handle return duties and to be the team's fourth receiver, but he joined the Tennessee Titans in free agency, opening up the competition to Carter and Robinson.

Kenneth Moore will also be in the mix on punt returns; he joined the Panthers last year after Robinson was placed on injured reserve but did not see the playing field, remaining inactive for the balance of the season. The Charlotte native and Wake Forest alumnus admits that he feels heat from the competition on a daily basis, but says he tries to put it out of his mind.

"It's pressure, because you want to prove to the coaches that you can play and deserve a spot on the roster," he said. "But you definitely don't want to put too much pressure on you, because you'll start messing up."

That mentality will also come in handy for Kevin McMahan, Larry Beavers, Marcus Monk and Jason Chery, the receivers who round out the training-camp complement. McMahan was on the Panthers' practice squad last season, while Monk, Chery and Beavers joined the team two days after the NFL Draft.

Because of the playmaking nature of their position, you might become familiar with those names in the coming weeks as we chronicle the big plays and playmakers of training camp. But it will take more than just the occasional acrobatic reception for any of the team's wideouts to find a home with the Panthers for the season to come.