The Carolina Panthers were set to enter the 2015-16 season with Kelvin Benjamin as their No. 1 receiver, just ahead of tight end Greg Olsen as Cam Newton's favorite target. But Benjamin didn't get a chance to follow up on his impressive 2014 rookie campaign in which he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. An injury derailed his season and the Panthers were already hurting for depth at the receiver position.
Enter Ted Ginn Jr., a player who hasn't been at the forefront of a wide receiver position since his final season with the Miami Dolphins, the team that drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 2007. Ginn was an explosive return man, but he never made it to 800 receiving yards with the Dolphins despite very high expectations. Worse, he developed a reputation as a player who dropped too many passes.
After joining the San Francisco 49ers, Ginn did very little as a receiver for three years before joining the Panthers in 2013. He had one season with his highest yardage total since 2008, 556 yards, before joining the Arizona Cardinals and again doing very little. This offseason, he came back to the Panthers. Suddenly, they needed him desperately.
Ginn has played in 15 games this season and has been targeted 96 times, second on the team behind only Olsen. Ginn caught 44 of those passes for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns. He averaged 16.8 yards per reception and had 250 yards after the catch this year.
And now he's set to start an NFC Championship, one game shy of the Super Bowl. He still doesn't look like the player the Dolphins thought they were getting with a top-10 pick back in 2007, but Ginn is a crucial piece of Carolina's offense and whether or not they make it to Santa Clara could hinge on a big play from Ginn.
They gave up on Ginn very quickly
The Dolphins were trying to trade Ginn away early in 2010 and ultimately accepted the 145th overall pick in that year's draft, a fifth-round selection. Ginn caught just five touchdowns in three seasons with the Dolphins and averaged just 13.0 yards per reception with the team that drafted him.
Few were talking about Ginn's potential as a receiver when he joined the 49ers. He was touted for his abilities on special teams and not much else. But that was still surprising, given how quickly people gave up on him as a receiver. But give up they did, as the 49ers only targeted Ginn 35 times in his first season with the team. He played in 13 games with them in 2012, and they targeted him just twice on offense.
Ginn the receiver was as good as gone.
The Cardinals were quick to scoop him up on a three-year, $9.75 million deal in 2014, but he was ultimately buried on the depth chart behind John Brown. The Niners released Ginn and he was welcomed back by the Panthers. Ron Rivera was a big believer in him, and he felt that Ginn was a fountain of untapped potential. He's proved to be just that for the Panthers this season.
What about the drops?
One of the reasons Ginn was dumped so quickly by the Dolphins and not considered much of a wide receiver by the 49ers was the drops. He dropped wide open passes for the Dolphins and many of the passes that went his way were, in fact, wide open. Ginn is a speedster and deep threat, and he wasn't able to go up and get the football while sprinting at full speed.
But has he stopped with the drops in Carolina? Things have looked better. While Ginn was egregious with the alligator arms with his previous teams, the folks at Pro Football Focus have him ranked outside of the top 10 among serial droppers for 2015. He was targeted 89 times and caught 44 passes while dropping nine of them, according to PFF.
That tied him for 11th in the league, while Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders led the way with 18 drops. Ginn still dropped his fair share of passes, but he was effective with the Panthers, and his drops didn't kill drives or lose games, unlike his drops with the Dolphins and the 49ers.
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Even Ginn himself can't explain why he's had such a good year with Carolina. But the Panthers liked Ginn, they knew he would produce, and produce he has. They made a smart move and it's paid off big time with injuries and lack of options for Newton. We'll see if it continues to pay off when Ginn takes the field against his former team, the Cardinals, on Sunday.