After failing to secure a deal in the first six days of free agency, wide receiver Robby Anderson is heading to Carolina on a 2-year, $20-million contract. Just $12 million is guaranteed, so the Panthers will be able to get out of this scot-free if the fit doesn’t work in 2020.
Anderson averaged 54 yards per game and six touchdowns a season over the past three years, but that was with the Jets, so most observers agreed that the 4-year vet is a prime candidate for a breakout year in 2020 now that he’s out of that organization. Anderson’s age (he’ll be just 27 next season) and all-world speed made him arguably the best wide receiver available in free agency. That’s why this deal feels surprisingly light on both years and average annual salary. Spotrac put Anderson’s open-market value at about $48 million over 4 years, which also just feels right for a high-end WR2 in a league where the cap keeps rising by eight figures every year. Unfortunately for Anderson, this is a historically good draft for wide receivers, so the timing did not work out in his favor. As for the Panthers, this a low-risk, high-upside move for a new-look team that will be going into 2020 with fresh faces at head coach (Matt Rhule) and quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater).
And yet, this still feels like some kind of impulse purchase. The Panthers entered the new league year with D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel as the top receivers on the depth chart. That’s a pretty middle-of-the-pack duo, but between those two and do-it-all running back Christian McCaffery, there weren’t too many extra passes to go around. More problematic, however, is the fit with Bridgewater and the new offense. Anderson’s game is built on burning speed and verticality. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he ranked seventh or higher in average air yards per target in three of the past four seasons. With new Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady coming in from LSU, however, Anderson will probably be running shorter, quick-hitting routes that emphasize after-the-catch abilities, which doesn’t play to his wheelhouse. Next Gen Stats uses tracking data to calculate yards after catch (YAC), as well as expected YAC based on factors such as how open the receiver is and how fast they’re moving. In each of the last four seasons, Anderson’s average YAC per reception has failed to meet the expected total.
Part of that was due to Anderson's role in the Jets’ offense (not many extra yards to pick up on downfield catches) and the attention he commanded by being his team’s only legitimate skill-position threat. Moreover, as ESPN reporter Bill Barnwell pointed out, Anderson has already proved that he’s adept at working the middle of the field. But this Carolina team doesn’t have Cam Newton and his field-stretching arm leading the offense anymore.
Instead, it has Bridgewater, who became a Panther after a very promising five games with the Saints last season while Drew Brees dealt with a hand injury. Bridgewater certainly deserves his fair share of credit for leading the Saints to a 5–0 record during those starts, but between Sean Payton’s offensive brilliance, Michael Thomas’s all-around dominance, and Alvin Kamara’s safety-valve reliability, Bridgewater never needed to create many yards through the air. His average depth of target on passes went just 6.2 yards last year, according to Next Gen Stats, which ranked dead last among qualifying QBs. Sure, part of that had to do with the Saints’ offense (Brees’ passes averaged just 6.7 yards), but with Bridgewater’s track record, no one was ever mistaking him for Dan Fouts. Carolina brought in the Louisville product knowing that he’s more of a game manager than a gunslinger.
As for Brady, he came to Carolina via LSU after spending two years working with Sean Payton in New Orleans. Brady hasn’t committed to running any well-defined offensive scheme yet, as he’s looking to “find out what our players do well so we can put them in position to have success.” If he’s truly trying to work with the cards he’s been dealt, Carolina’s offense will probably emphasize the short-to-intermediate game with a heavy dose of RPOs and screens given Bridgewater’s limitations, McCaffery’s wizardry, and the state of the offensive line. Those factors make me think Anderson will be pigeon-holed as the vertical threat, similar to the role Ted Ginn filled for the past three years in the Big Easy. Such spot duty comes with relatively few opportunities in terms of targets and consistent impact.
I just hope Anderson’s arrival doesn’t mean they intend to trade Samuel. Because if Anderson is meant to be his replacement, I don’t see that as a meaningful jump in talent. Samuel’s coming off the best season of his three-year career, exactly matching his production from his first two years with 757 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns in 2019. It was an encouraging sign of growth from a player who wasn’t a full-time wide receiver until he became a pro, and the type of jump that makes you think a breakout is right around the corner. Now, that big coming out moment might not happen in Carolina, which is somewhat disappointing, because Samuel’s ability to contribute in the running game feels like a great fit for the versatile offense Brady might try to scheme up. Samuel is also on his rookie contract for one more year, with a meager cap hit of just over $2 million in 2020. That’s far cry from what Anderson costs.
Yes, the Panthers got a bargain for Anderson, but even if you want to put a lot of stock in the good price, this type of 2-year deal doesn’t make a lot of sense for a rebuilding team that just finished a 5–11 season. His $12 million of guaranteed money is a nice chunk of change that could have gone toward revamping a depleted defense that will be without eight of last season’s starters, including franchise legend Luke Kuechly — the outlook is pretty bleak for a unit that was already second-to-last in run defense DVOA in 2019, according to Football Outsiders. With the free-agent pool still boasting a handful of impact defenders like Everson Griffin, Logan Ryan, and Reshad Jones, Anderson’s money was better served elsewhere. Not to mention, it might be impossible to overstate the depth of the wide receiver position in this draft. There was a reason Anderson lasted on the open market this long.
Sure, this signing comes with little risk and a lot of upside, especially if Anderson can carve out a role as a breakaway threat. The scheme fit and opportunity cost, however, knock it down several pegs in my book.
FINAL GRADE: C