Avoiding the risk of overpaying an extravagant contract to a free agent wideout such as Eric Decker or the hometown son Hakeem Nicks, Carolina brass easily drew the ire of Panthers Nation in the off-season. In an ever-developing league which focuses on the air attack, it seems that Carolina had hurt their offense more than helped by not signing a big named receiver. They have since released all of their 2013 starting receivers, including the great Steve Smith.
Though not as publicized as other free agent signings in the off-season, the Panthers brought in lesser known, but proven veterans in Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood. Cotchery has been a 1,000-yard receiver on a New York Jet team that was one game away from a Super Bowl appearance. Avant, though never attaining more than 700 yards in a season, was a steady target in Philadelphia for eight seasons. His veteran intangibles will most certainly be missed as longtime coach Andy Reid once stated Avant was the best inside-slot receiver in the NFL.
The least glamorous signing among this projected island of misfit toys, Tiquan Underwood has the most to prove this season. Bouncing between Jacksonville, New England, and Tampa Bay over the past four seasons, Underwood has seen the best in quarterbacks (Tom Brady) and at times, some of the most inconsistent of quarterback play (Josh Freeman, Trent Edwards) in the league.
However, unlike Avant or Cotchery, Underwood has previously never found his niche since being drafted by the Jaguars in the seventh round of the 2009 draft.
Slated as a replacement for the lightning quick Ted Ginn Jr, Underwood has struggled in the NFL, being cut eight times in his career, and famously cut the evening before Super Bowl 46 while a member of the New England Patriots. Following the move by the AFC Champions, Underwood remained humbled in his praise of the Patriots organization. “The NFL is a business, and I respect coach (Bill) Belichick a lot because he is going to do what he needs to win that game…”
Despite the harsh realities of the NFL landscape, Underwood has survived the roster decisions and believes because of them, he is even better. “Everything happens for a reason, and I’m just continuing to work hard and fight,” Underwood said. He later added, “… I’ve beaten the odds by continuing to work.”
Underwood has embraced the numerous directions his career has taken him to as he has learned much being a journeyman receiver. “”The best teacher is experience, and I’ve been getting a lot of experience, especially these past two years playing in Tampa,” Underwood said. “From year one to year six I’ve learned from guys like Tory Holt, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, and Vincent Jackson…
With a 40-time of 4.31, the Panthers offense would not miss a beat in the speed department of their receiver corps by replacing Ginn with Underwood. Likely to fill the No. 3 role for Carolina, the former Rutgers star has flashed his potential sparingly while bouncing from team to team. In a week two performance against the Detroit Lions last season, Underwood showed promised by recorded his first 100 yard game since college where he caught three balls and scored twice last season (the last score being the game winning touchdown).
Underwood if he can improve his timing on routes and his hands, can easily become a deep threat for Newton who has one of the strongest arms in the league. Tiquan’s burst of speed which counters the steady hands of an Avant and Cotchery and the athleticism of a Kelvin Benjamin, can cause defenses trouble attempting to game-plan for four different types of receivers. But within the first weeks of camp, not the rookie Benjamin, but Tiquan has been the receiver among the four who has been sporadic with his play.
According to sources at camp two weeks ago, Underwood repeatedly showed the same old habits which has caused him to be cut eight times by three teams. Untimely drops and miscommunication with quarterbacks on routes is what has hindered Underwood throughout his career in finding a stable position within the NFL. Now with Carolina, Underwood will need to reinvent himself as a more consistent target or will easily see himself dropped on the depth chart and eventually from the team.
Following his play that day, Underwood added following his unstable practice, “When you’re playing with new quarterbacks and receivers, we’re all feeling each other out.”
While that day’s performance was not perfect, Underwood has played well at moments in Panthers camp, thus earning the praise of Coach Ron Rivera. Rivera believed that Underwood may have a role on special teams because of his speed. While Underwood would accept a position as a return specialist, he certainly would prefer the position he was drafted out of school for.
If Underwood would like to play the position he has played since before his high type was faded, consistency needs to start showing for this Carolina Panther.