LaFell, now in his third season with the Panthers, comes in as the team’s No. 2 receiver and is expected to start alongside five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith, according to coach Ron Rivera.
That’s not altogether a new role for LaFell.
He started six games at the end of last season after Legedu Naanee broke his foot. LaFell played well once he got a grasp of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s offense and he knows this season represents a golden opportunity to establish himself as an NFL starter for years to come.
“I think last year when Legedu broke his foot Brandon stepped up,” Rivera said. “But now he has to step up a little more because he has to take that pressure off of Steve Smith.”
In last year’s season finale against New Orleans, tight end Greg Olsen left with an injury and Carolina’s offense almost immediately went in the tank. The Saints were able to key on Smith and shut down the high-flying Panthers, limiting them to 301 net yards and 17 points.
LaFell knows nothing is given to him.
The Panthers have several receivers ready to push him for playing time. Among those are newcomer Louis Murphy from the Oakland Raiders and David Gettis, who started ahead of LaFell two years ago before a knee injury sidelined him in 2011.
Gettis is still on the physically unable to perform list and hasn’t practiced, but Murphy is beginning to make his presence known.
“When you got a guy like him come in, and he doesn’t even know the offense yet but is making plays the first day out there, that’s going to make you step your game up,” LaFell said. “So I feel like I have to stay in my playbook and keep making plays and catch a lot of balls.”
LaFell had 613 yards receiving on 36 receptions and three touchdowns last year, with most his success coming later in the season. He struggled early on to pick up Chudzinski’s complicated offense after a lockout-shortened offseason.
“To be honest, it probably took until Week 8 or Week 9 to grasp the whole offense and really go out there and be comfortable,” LaFell said.
Once he did, he started looking like a force.
He caught 18 passes for 319 yards over the final seven games, including a 91-yard touchdown reception against Tampa Bay in Week 16 — the longest in franchise history.
That’s something he’d like to build on.
Along with becoming a better downfield blocker LaFell said he wants to catch more deep balls.
“I feel like I really need to work on creating more separation” between the defensive back, LaFell said.
With an increased comfort level on offense, LaFell feels as though the sky is the limit.
“It’s totally different, this camp is just about fine-tuning things,” LaFell said. “It’s not like last year or my first camp where we had a new coaching staffs and we had to learn the playbook and it took a lot of time to learn things. This year’s about going over those mental reps and getting better at it.”
Rivera said LaFell wasn’t alone in taking a while to pick things up.
“There were several guys that took a while to get comfortable,” Rivera said. “DeAngelo Williams was another guy we were concerned with, and you guys (in the media) were killing me with early last season. But then he started to come along. This is not a simple offense. That’s the truth to the matter. It took some guys longer, but when you bring in a new staff there’s a learning curve to it.”
NOTES: WR Smith was back at practice Wednesday, but rookie CB Josh Norman (hamstring) and LB Thomas Davis (knee) were held out for precautionary reasons. ... The Panthers were given 24 hours off after Tuesday morning’s practice and return to work Wednesday night at Wofford College.