As we count down the days to training camp, Around the League will examine one player from every team set for a breakout campaign in 2012. Next up: the Carolina Panthers.
World, say "Hello" to Brandon LaFell.
Actually, if you're reading this, you're already well aware of who Brandon LaFell is. He was one of the most productive receivers in LSU history and a third-round pick by the Panthers in 2010. In two NFL seasons, LaFell has 74 receptions for 1,081 yards and four touchdowns while starting seven of 30 games.
In 2012, however, the 6-foot-3, 211-pound LaFell has an opportunity to become a household name.
Despite playing in nearly 66 percent of the Panthers' snaps last season, LaFell ranked sixth on the team in targets (56), behind the likes of Legedu Naanee (76), Jeremy Shockey (62) and Jonathan Stewart (61). With Naanee moving on, LaFell has the inside track on the No. 2 receiving job opposite Steve Smith. LaFell's 2011 season offered a glimpse of what he's capable of.
STAT GEEK ALERT!
As the No. 3 receiver last season, LaFell caught 36 passes for 613 yards and three touchdowns. Pretty good back-of-the-bubblegum card stats for a young receiver playing with a rookie quarterback in a season where neither had the benefit of a full NFL offseason. According to the advanced metrics at Football Outsiders, LaFell's 2011 put him in rather good company.
Football Outsiders' DYAR statistic, which "gives the value of the performance on plays where this WR caught the ball, compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage," LaFell ranked among the top-32 receivers in the NFL last season, right below Buffalo's Stevie Johnson (who signed a $36.25 million contract extension in March) and Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe (who received but has yet to sign his $9.5 million franchise tag), but ahead of Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson (who signed a $48.5 million extension).
FO's other statistic for receivers, DVOA, represents a player's value, per play, over an average WR in the same game situations. That metric was kinder to LaFell, who ranked 11th among the 92 qualifying receivers. Johnson (51st) and Bowe (54th) couldn't crack the top 50, while Panthers teammate Smith ranked 24th.
Smith expects LaFell to be a "phenomenal" player going forward. With a full offseason to become more familiar in Rob Chudzinski's offense, and a better a rapport with Cam Newton, expect big things from LaFell this season.