SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Anyone who knows wide receiver Steve Smith knows he loves to compete and watch people compete. Brandon LaFell found that out when he first met Smith.
"I can remember the first conversation me and Smitty had... he pulled me to the side and said, 'Hey, I'm going to need you just as bad as you need me,'" LaFell recalled. "He's definitely pushing me."
He's been pushing LaFell ever since the Panthers drafted the wide receiver out of Louisiana State in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
A recent training camp competition between the two involved running the best "stop 7" route – essentially a corner route that is cut off before the receiver reaches the sideline.
"I ran a pretty good (stop 7) route one day in practice, paid myself a compliment. So (Smith said), 'Well, we're going to see who's the best stop 7 runner.' Next couple plays we both had the route. Got (a look) at the film, started watching it and before you knew it (Steve said), 'Hey, I'll give it to you. You're the better one.'
"Just nothing but competition, man. Just getting each other better."
Added Smith: "It was a short contest. I'll say it publicly – (Brandon) is the best stop 7 runner on the team. He beat me probably two routes in."
LaFell, who played in 14 games with 12 starts last season, posted career highs in receptions (44), yards (677) and touchdowns (4).
He's entrenched as the team's No. 2 wide receiver, but he's still striving to prove he's that consistent playmaker opposite Smith.
LaFell has heard critics suggest the Panthers need more from the No. 2 wideout, and it's a motivating factor for him heading into 2013. More importantly, he's motivated to prove that he should be a fixture of this offense for years to come.
"Just another year to go out here and prove to everybody that I can really do this," LaFell said. "I feel like I've progressed every year. But this is the last year of my deal. I've got to come out here and ball and give the Panthers a reason to keep me around."
Head coach Ron Rivera is already sold on LaFell and his potential.
"He's a solid No. 2, and he's still trending up. I think the arrow is still up on Brandon; now it's just a matter of doing it," Rivera said. "If he can start off the way doing the things he did in the middle of last season, that's really going to help us."
Based on early reviews, Smith believes the Panthers can expect increased production from LaFell in 2013.
"LaFell has done an outstanding job," Smith said. "This year, he has really – not that he didn't work (before) – but there is a significant gap with where he is today.
"He's making great strides. It's cool to see a guy like that work hard, and it isn't going to his head. You can just see him – he wants to work harder and harder."