Panthers using WR overhaul formula that helped Eagles win Super Bowl

Torrey Smith was part of a receiver makeover in Philadelphia and is a focal point of a similar project by the Panthers. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Philadelphia Eagles were a disaster at wide receiver in 2016. They ranked 24th in the league in passing with 224.1 yards per game. Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor were tied for second on the team with 36 catches and two touchdowns each.

So, management spent the offseason overhauling the position. Leading receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick were traded to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby. Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith were signed in free agency to start on the outside. Agholor moved to the slot position and two receivers were drafted.

Jeffery, Smith and Agholor combined for 155 catches and 19 touchdowns.

And, oh by the way, the Eagles won the Super Bowl -- with a backup quarterback, no less.

The Carolina Panthers are trying to do the same thing with a group that was an equal mess this past season. Only Devin Funchess (63 catches) had more than 17 receptions. Running back Christian McCaffrey led the team with 80 catches.

So, general manager Marty Hurney began the overhaul with a formula eerily familiar to Philadelphia's. It actually began midway through last season, when leading receiver Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo for third- and seventh-round draft picks in 2018.

Starting cornerback Daryl Worley was traded to Philadelphia just before free agency began in exchange for Smith, the likely starter outside with Funchess. Former Minnesota receiver Jarius Wright was signed Tuesday to play the slot. A receiver probably will be selected among the first three rounds of the draft, perhaps with the No. 24 overall pick.

Will it get the Panthers to the Super Bowl?

That remains to be seen, but there is a concerted effort to upgrade a position that was an Achilles' heel a year ago.

"It can turn around really, really quick," Wright said.

Coach Ron Rivera hopes so. The goal, beginning with the Benjamin trade, was to add more speed since Funchess and Benjamin were of similar size and style.

They got that in Smith, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds in the combine before the 2011 draft. Wright also is fast, clocked at 4.42 seconds at the 2012 combine.

Add them to the mix with 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel -- who missed most of last season because of injuries -- and 2015 undrafted free agent Damiere Byrd, and the Panthers have the makings for a good 4x100 relay team.

"Speed," Rivera said Tuesday on ESPN 730 AM radio when asked what Smith, in particular, brought to the group. "Last year we lost Ted Ginn to free agency, which I think was a big blow to our offense. When you have speed, it offsets a lot of things. It forces the defense to play honest. You don't see a lot of eight-man boxes all the time. You can't play a lot of man coverage, either.

"So bringing a guy in with Torrey Smith's speed and ability is going to help us out tremendously."

Signing Smith, 29, and Wright, 28, prevents Funchess from being the elder statesmen of the group at age 23.

Wright also had his two best seasons when new Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner was in the same position at Minnesota in 2014 and 2015. So, he knows what to expect from Turner and can relay that to the younger players.

"The big thing everybody has to understand that is coming here, the demand is going to be high," Rivera said. "We need guys to understand what's expected of them when they get on the field. If you have a veteran guy that can show you, 'Hey, believe me, there's a reason why we're doing this. This is how we do this. This is what Coach wants,' it helps."

It's the same thought process Rivera had in 2011 when he went from the defensive coordinator at San Diego to the head coach of the Panthers. He brought players such as fullback Mike Tolbert with him a year later to help others understand what they should expect from the new coach.

The receiving corps needed to change for the Panthers to improve offensively. They ranked 28th in the NFL in passing with 192.3 yards per game.

Losing Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen for nine games was a big factor. But just as big was the lack of production at wide receiver outside of Funchess, who had a career high in catches.

The receivers were so bad that early speculation had most of the draft analysts predicting Carolina would use its first-round pick on a dynamic receiver, from SMU's Courtland Sutton to Texas A&M's Christian Kirk.

But with the addition of Smith and Wright, the Panthers could wait until the second or third round to add another receiver. Outside of Alabama's Calvin Ridley, who could be a top-10 pick, there's discrepancy on whether the other receivers should be selected in the first, second or third round.

It helps that Turner has experience in rebuilding receiver groups. From 2014 through the seventh game of the 2016 season, he molded the foundation of the Minnesota unit that made it to the NFC Championship Game this past season.

"Norv, he does a lot of things," said Wright, who had a career-best 42 catches under Turner in 2014. "He has a lot of different routes and ways to get receivers the ball. Some screens, some down-the-field things with having Cam [Newton] and his strong arm. He can get the ball down the field. That's what Norv likes to do."

But before Turner could begin doing that, he had to overhaul a receiving corps that was a mess in 2017. Time will tell if it will be a success, but Smith's experience in Philadelphia and Wright's Minnesota experience provides evidence it can work.

"I don't think it takes long at all," Wright said of turning things around with a new group. "I know just being with my old receiving corps, we jelled really, really quick.

"Not that things were already bad. But you can always turn your passing game around really, really quick."