LaFell comes up short with Smith out

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brandon LaFell had a chance to show he could be a go-to wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers with Steve Smith out the last game and three quarters with a sprained knee.

He had a chance to show he deserved a new contract worthy of the No. 2 receiver for a championship-caliber team.

He didn't.

If anything, LaFell proved how much the Panthers (12-4) need Smith for their Jan. 12 playoff game against either Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco.

Since Smith injured his knee with 5:34 left in the first quarter of a Week 16 victory over New Orleans, LaFell has been targeted seven times. He has one catch for 13 yards.

He was targeted five times but had no catches in Sunday's 21-20 regular-season finale against the Atlanta Falcons.

He really has done little in the reception department since catching seven passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in a Week 11 victory over the New England Patriots.

In the past six games, he has 13 catches (targeted 28 times) for 168 yards and a touchdown.

Among just wide receivers, he is tied for 45th in the league with 46 catches. Pass-happy Denver has three wide receivers in the top 23. The Chicago Bears have two in the top 10.

Throw running backs and tight ends into the mix and LaFell ranks 76th in catches.

But where LaFell ranks isn't as concerning as what he has done with Smith out. Coach Ron Rivera tried to put a positive spin on it, saying, "He's playing pretty well; he's putting himself in position to be targeted.''

Rivera also reminded that quarterback Cam Newton was wild some on Sunday and that the Falcons paid more attention to LaFell in coverages with Smith out.

Then he added, "Sometimes, we put a little more pressure on ourselves and we don't make the plays when we have chances.''

When you're playing for a new contract, you have to make those plays. Smith would have. It's why he's gone from a kick returner in 2001 to the team's all-time leading receiver.

He gets open and makes clutch catches even when teams design their defense to stop him. His 19-yard catch on fourth-and-10 with the game on the line at Miami earlier this season is a prime example.

LaFell had a chance to be that guy on Sunday and was shut out.

That could be a good thing for Carolina when it comes time for negotiations. It's also important to note that Rivera has said he wants LaFell back, and the things LaFell does as a blocker can't be overlooked.

His block was key for DeAngelo Williams' 72-yard touchdown on a screen pass against the New York Jets.

"Going forward, he’s obviously somebody you’d like to have,” Rivera said before Smith was injured. “You want him back on the team because of all the different things he does. He does more than just run routes.

“He’s gotten better every year. And he’s solidifying himself as a starter in the NFL.”

But as the go-to receiver, the fourth-year player out of LSU hasn't solidified anything. He has only proven the Panthers need Smith back.

Rivera acknowledged that.

"It did illustrate what a veteran No. 1 receiver does for you,'' he said of the Atlanta game in which Carolina wide receivers had only four catches for 22 yards. "It'll be good to have him back out there. I believe he's going to be back out there, just knowing Steve.''

LaFell will be back out there as well, so he still has a chance to enhance his value for a new deal.