Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE
Ace Sanders led Carolina in receiving TDs and receptions. He was second on the team in receiving yards. He just missed out on leading the country in punt return yardage, picking up 429 to Dustin Harris's 432. He even tossed a TD pass. Sanders chose to ride the momentum from his big season into the NFL, giving up his final year of college eligibility to do so. I'm sure that I speak for us all when I say that I wish him well.
Finding players to fill in for Sanders's production will be one of the challenges for Carolina going forward. Surprisingly enough, replacing the receiving production may be the easiest part of the equation. That's not to say that Sanders didn't play a pivotal role in the passing game. Although more of a prototypical slot receiver, Sanders lined up at the featured split-end spot a fair amount to the time, too. He was generally recognized as our lead receiver, despite the fact that Bruce Ellington ended the season with more receiving yards. Connor Shaw described Sanders as the go-to guy, and, to take nothing away from Ellington, the reason Sanders didn't catch for closer to 1000 yards on the season is likely because a tentative Shaw struggled to throw the ball down field early in the season. It's not a coincidence that with a more aggressive Shaw and Dylan Thompson throwing more balls down field late in the season, Sanders had big games against Tennessee, Clemson, and Michigan.
Who replaces his production? The likely candidates are Ellington, Shamier Jeffery, or Shaq Roland. Ellington had a better-than-expected 2012 while shifting between the slot and the "x" and may be asked to play an even bigger role this year. Of course, the featured "x" position has typically gone to a bigger, jump-ball-type receiver under Spurrier. While neither Jeffery the younger or Roland yet have the look of a Sidney Rice or Alshon Jeffery, both have decent size and athleticism for the position. Unfortunately, both have also garnered reputations for lacking high-end work ethics. Reports out of camp so far suggest that Jeffery has bought into the process a bit more than Roland. In any event, both players have an excellent opportunity to earn more playing time this coming season. The good news for Carolina fans is that while there are questions marks here (is Ellington suited for a feature role? will Jeffery or Roland pan out? will Nick Jones or Kwinton Smith be viable players at the flanker position? can Damiere Byrd become more than a deep-ball threat?), we have a wealth of talent at receiver and have good reason to believe that the coaches will be able to figure out a solution.
I'm not as optimistic about our ability to replace Sanders at PR. He was arguably the nation's top player at the position, ranking among the best and saving his best returns for big-time situations. He was the best returner we've had in many years at Carolina. Unfortunately, as we well know from experience, it's hard to find a guy who possesses the right collection of traits to succeed as a return man. Currently, Victor Hampton is slated to replace Sanders here, and while Hampton's speed and explosiveness could pay dividends, I doubt he has Sanders's unique balance, shiftiness, and field vision--and that's to say nothing of the fact that a loose cannon like Hampton is a turnover waiting to happen while fielding punts. Just take a look at the one he returned against UAB to see what I mean.
Needless to say, punt returning doesn't have the same impact on the game that other positions does. That said, it's not an insignificant position. Sanders's big returns helped us immeasurably over the course of the year, and the "hidden yardage" you gain when the opposing team punts short against a dangerous return man is just as beneficial over the long run.