METAIRIE — Even at age 33, five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith still puts the “wow’’ in the Carolina Panthers’ passing game with his ability to move the chains and change the complexion of games while facing double coverage.
But former LSU standout Brandon LaFell appears to be closing the gap on Smith, game by game, catch by catch, yard by yard, touchdown by touchdown. One day, who knows? LaFell may become the passing fancy for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
As his third NFL season draws to a close Sunday against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the 26-year-old LaFell is giving off those kinds of vibes.
“He’s been tremendous,’’ Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of LaFell during a conference call this week. “He’s our No. 2 (wide receiver) right now. He just gets better and better each week.’’
Through 15 games, LaFell ranks third on the team with career highs of 39 catches for 615 yards and four touchdowns — this despite being slowed by a concussion, a chipped bone in his right foot and turf toe since Week 8. Of 69 passes thrown to him, LaFell only has three drops for a respectable 56.5 completion percentage.
“I feel I can keep improving and keep getting better,’’ said LaFell, a third-round draft pick in 2010 who has caught 12 passes for 137 yards in five games against New Orleans.
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot over the last couple of years, and I hear it a lot from other DBs. So I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, keep getting better, and learn as much as I can from Smitty (Steve Smith) while he’s here.’’
Smith leads the Panthers with 70 catches (on 129 targeted passes, with five drops, for a 54.4 completion percentage) for 1,101 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Greg Olsen has chipped in with 65 catches for 800 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.
But it’s the play of LaFell that has Rivera excited as this season winds down.
“Last year, when we were going into training camp, I was a little disappointed in him,’’ Rivera said of LaFell, who on Christmas Eve 2011 caught a franchise-record 91-yard touchdown pass in a 48-16 win against Tampa Bay.
“We brought in Legedu Naanee to be the starter, and I think that put a little fire in him a little bit. He took it personal, and I’m telling you: The young man has developed into a solid football player.’’
Saints CB Jabari Greer (concussion) and RB Pierre Thomas (knee) are among three players who won’t dress out for Sunday’s finale with the Panthers. Also out is DT Akiem Hicks (knee). ... TE Jimmy Graham (wrist/finger), FB Jed Collins (knee) and RB Chris Ivory (hamstring) are probable. ... For the Panthers, RB Jonathan Stewart (ankle), C Geoff Hangartner (foot), LB James Anderson (back) and WR Joe Adams (ankle) are all questionable, while DE Greg Hardy (not injury-related) and LaFell (toe) are probable. ... Former Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson, a 2010 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will meet fans at the Saints Hall of Fame Museum, located at Gate B on the Plaza Level of the Superdome from 10-11:15 a.m. Sunday. The museum is free of charge to ticket holders for three hours before and 45 minutes after each home game.