Not just a deep threat: Robby Anderson on the right track in Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Robby Anderson interrupted himself. The Carolina Panthers wide receiver, off to the best start of his NFL career and one of the league’s early-season surprises, had been asked which receiver he admired growing up.

It was important for him to get it right.

Oh, there were stars such as Randy Moss, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson and Brandon Marshall, players Anderson liked as a young player. But admire?

“I don’t want to sit here and lie and say I admired a receiver because I admired Sean Taylor,” Anderson said of the two-time Pro Bowl free safety for Washington. “Like, that’s who I wanted to be like. When he died, that’s what made me want to stop playing defense.”

Taylor, who, like Anderson, grew up in the Miami area, was killed during burglary of his home in 2007 at age 24. Until then, Anderson envisioned himself in the NFL defending passes, not catching them.

He wanted to make that clear.

“Everyone that really knows me, I was a defensive player,” Anderson said.

Now Anderson is a defensive player’s nightmare, making plays he rarely made in his first four NFL seasons with the New York Jets or at Temple. He’s become a complete wide receiver, no longer just a deep threat because of his elite speed.

“It was always in him,” Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. “Maybe it was the system that he was in. You know how this league works. When you’re labeled one way, that travels with you.”

Anderson is blowing the lid off that label the way his speed allows him to blow the lid off defenses. He ranks third among wide receivers with 36 catches entering Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears (1 p.m. ET, Fox). He is fourth in receiving yards with 489 and first in yards after catch with 223.

His most impressive stat might be his catch rate of 76.6%. He came into the season with an average of 55.0.

That’s significant because Anderson has become a possession receiver for the first time. He’s fearlessly going over the middle on slant routes and curls as if he’s done it all of his career.

More than half of Anderson’s routes this season have had a maximum depth of less than 10 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On routes up to 15 yards in maximum vertical depth this season, Anderson has nearly equaled his production from 16 games a year ago. He’s being targeted and catching passes on those routes at more than double the rate he did with the Jets in 2019.

On inside short routes, Anderson’s target percentage has jumped from 3.4% in 2019 to 11.7% this season. He’s already been targeted 32 times on short-intermediate passes compared to 41 all of last season. He has 27 catches on those throws compared to 31 in 2019.

Anderson finally is getting credit for his ability to track the football on something other than a go route.

“I know he’s had this moniker of being a deep guy only,” said Carolina coach Matt Rhule, who also coached Anderson at Temple. “But he has a unique ability to track the ball. He’s courageous to catch the ball underneath. His catch-and-run skills are outstanding."

Trust with Teddy

Bridgewater signed with Carolina on March 23. The next day, Anderson reached a deal with the Panthers for $20 million over two years.

Soon after, Bridgewater -- who is also from the Miami area -- and Anderson were working out together. That continued throughout much of the pandemic, which shut down team offseason programs.

“He really took pride in just wanting to run routes,” Bridgewater said. “For the most part during the offseason, I had him in the slot running routes ... to learn how to play at a slower speed.”

That was the beginning of a trust and chemistry between the two, who briefly played together in the Jets' 2018 training camp before Bridgewater was traded to New Orleans. It made Anderson feel comfortable in Panthers coordinator Joe Brady’s offense before arriving for training camp.

Never before had a quarterback spent so much time working with Anderson on underneath routes.

“That’s a huge impact,” Anderson said. “Him having that trust in me and him understanding and wanting to take time to teach me ... it helped my game a lot.”

Bridgewater’s league-best 73.4 completion percentage has helped Anderson take his game to another level. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the expected completion percentage of targeting Anderson is 69.3%, compared to 55.1% last season with Sam Darnold and Luke Falk.

A higher percentage of Anderson’s targets also have come on plays in which he has at least 3 yards of separation. Last season, he had less than 1 yard of separation on 29.3% of his targets.

The trust Anderson and Bridgewater have built also works in tight coverage, such as Anderson’s one-handed catch down the left sideline on Sunday against Atlanta.

Brady’s scheme, a combination of what Bridgewater ran at New Orleans the past two seasons and what LSU ran last season en route to the national championship, also is a factor.

Bridgewater drilled Anderson on that in South Florida, and Brady has done the rest with designed plays. That’s shown up big in yards after catches. Anderson’s 223 yards after catches is already more than the 193 yards he had all of last season.

“You see a player of Robby’s caliber, how fast he is, so obviously if you just get the ball in his hands, great things happen,” Brady said.

Said Carolina backup quarterback P.J. Walker, who often threw deep to Anderson at Temple: “Just how smart he’s gotten, the feel he’s gotten for the game, it’s incredible to watch.”

Maturity off the field

Anderson’s off-the-field history, from missing his 2014 season at Temple because of academic issues to two offseason arrests in 2017 with the Jets, have been well documented.

Rhule had no problem vouching for the 6-foot-3, 190-pound receiver when the Panthers pursued him in free agency.

“I’m surrounded by a lot of great people that push me to become a better person,” Anderson said. “I separated myself from people that probably didn’t want what was best for me and my life.”

That helped on the field as well.

“When you have life outside of football the best it can be, it makes football that much easier,” Anderson said.

That, again, is why it was important for Anderson to get it right when asked about the receiver he most admired. He saw in Taylor somebody who overcame mistakes to be one of the best in the NFL, and he saw in Taylor how fast that all could be taken away.

While Anderson might seem quirky, such as when he called Panthers mascot Sir Purr a bear earlier this season in a video that went viral, he’s really a deep thinker.

He’s not caught up in the numbers that are drawing him headlines. He’s not caught up in making outrageous comments or becoming a social media star. His focus is on winning.

And occasionally, he’ll interrupt himself to make sure he’s not misunderstood.

“I’m not the nonchalant person,” Anderson said. “I find myself not speaking unmeaningful words, unmeaningful thoughts, just saying things to say things.”