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2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: Carolina Panthers

Rich Hribar considers the 2014 fantasy football prospects of every Carolina Panthers offensive player.

Cam Newton
Cam Newton

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Panthers finished 12-4, securing home field advantage and a playoff berth for the first time since 2008. Those 12 wins were only one fewer than the 13 victories that the franchise totaled in 2011 and 2012 combined.  In 2014, Carolina will be looking to make the postseason in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.

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2014 Panthers Schedule

Week   Opp
1 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2 Detroit Lions
3 Pittsburgh Steelers
4 @ Baltimore Ravens
5 Chicago Bears
6 @ Cincinnati Bengals
7 @ Green Bay Packers
8 Seattle Seahawks
9 New Orleans Saints
10 @ Philadelphia Eagles
11 Atlanta Falcons
12 Bye Week
13 @ Minnesota Vikings
14 @ New Orleans Saints
15 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
16 Cleveland Browns
17 @ Atlanta Falcons

 

Make sure that you tread lightly when looking at the schedule this far in advance, but the Panthers won’t have an easy road if they are to get back to the postseason. Their slate up until their bye week is pretty daunting on paper and with the defense they possess themselves, we could get a lot of slugfests from this team that provides marginal fantasy equity.

I say that because this offense had lateral production in its first season under Mike Shula that it had in 2012 under Rob Chudzinski. The big difference in the 2013 Panthers was that their defense placed their offense in situations in which they had offensive leverage. Check out this offense from the past two seasons in a few efficiency areas.

Category 2012 Rank 2013 Rank
Points Per Game 22.3 18 22.1 19
Average Scoring Margin -0.04 18 6.6 5
Points Per Play 0.361 16 0.357 19
Yards Per Point 16.2 21 14.4 13
Yards Per Play 5.8 7 5.1 22
Points Per Drive 1.91 12 1.94 12

 

Not a whole lot is expected to change entering 2014 with this offense in terms of philosophy, despite the losses on their offensive line and a pallet swap at the receiver position. This is a team that is going to remain run oriented and rely on its quarterback’s versatility to create space and yardage.

Newton’s Law

Despite his team having an overall wealth of success, Newton himself had a very up and down 2013 season. In the end, he threw for the most touchdown passes (24) and posted highest completion percentage (61.7 percent) of his first three seasons. He finished in the top 12 in terms of adjusted yards per aimed attempt (AY/AA) on his way to finishing as the third highest scorer at quarterback in fantasy.

That finish masked a lot of uneven production as he was more volatile than ever, notching only six top 12 scoring weeks and in terms quality starts, he was completely all over the board. Newton had a quarter of his games fall evenly into all four buckets of quarterback fantasy performance (elite, good, average and duds).

A big part of his fantasy viability (and volatility) comes from his reliance on adding rushing points since his overall passing volume is capped by his offense. Newton had 12 games in which he had at least 20 or more rushing yards and seven with 40 or more yards rushing, first in both out of quarterbacks. He had 94.5 fantasy points rushing, which was more than Ray Rice, Andre Ellington and others. Despite that output, he actually relied on his legs less than ever before.

[table id=186 /]

Newton had offseason surgery on his ankle, so this is a trend that could continue to take hold in 2014. Looking back on the Panther’s schedule this season, there also is concern because Newton is 26.2 percent worse for fantasy versus top defenses in the league so far in his career and struggles like most quarterbacks when faced with negative game script.  In the Chiefs Outlook, I compared Newton and the other “running” quarterbacks and while he has the highest weekly ceiling, he’s also the least consistent. Here’s his Career Graph available from RotoViz in comparison to those other quarterbacks over the past two seasons.

cam

I still see Newton as a solid buy for those shopping for a quarterback in rounds six through nine because he has the built-in cheat code even if he continues to run less. As someone who doesn’t advocate falling into the middle quarterback tiers at that portion of the draft, I’m aware that I can arbitrage a lot of Newton’s weekly output with a consistent player like Russell Wilson a few rounds later or wait on Alex Smith at the tail end of my draft. He has potential to be a weekly hammer, which is why he’s alluring. Newton’s 2014 epilogue may finish as a great story, but his weekly chapters likely will say something very different.

Panther Passing Game

A lot has been made about the Panthers’ receivers this offseason, but they junked a group of lemons this offseason. In 2013, Carolina receivers combined for only seven top 24 PPR weeks and their lead receiver was one of the worst targets for his team in the entire NFL. At worst, the Panthers 2014 crew will be a lateral move, but should be better.

Replacing Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn with Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery doesn’t really move the fantasy needle much. Avant was in the bottom dozen of targets per route run last season and was 94th in fantasy points per route.  Some are expecting Cotchery to hold some value, but I’ll be searching for real upside at that juncture of the draft. He is coming off a season in which he scored 10 touchdowns and still wasn’t a fantasy asset. Even with all of those scores, he cracked the top 24 weekly scorers only three times. He also had a major outlier in terms of red zone performance. In 2013 he converted 10 of 22 red zone targets for scores (45 percent) after converting only 11 of 78 (14 percent) over his first nine seasons. In a low volume passing attack, he’ll be the third option at best and just can’t be trusted in your lineup on a week to week basis.

Rookie Kelvin Benjamin entered the draft as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. As Matt Freedman points out, he’s a hard player to judge because there’s really no history of receivers like him. The Panthers were willing to overlook some red flags in terms of his age and lack of overall college production for his upside in terms of being a matchup nightmare and red zone dominator. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin converted 10 of 25 red zone targets for scores at Florida State. That potential touchdown production is a reason to rethink some of the negativity surrounding him and could turn him into a high reward option if his cost remains down throughout all of the glowing camp reports. Since 1970, here’s a look at how often rookie receivers have found the end zone catching the football.

# of TD Players Avg/ Yr
6+ 61 1.39
7+ 42 0.95
8+ 31 0.70
9+ 12 0.27
10+ 5 0.11
11+ 3 0.07
12+ 2 0.05

 

Although his high end return could be close to a fantasy WR2, a realistic expectation still puts him in the six to eight touchdown range. He may eventually get too rich by the time your league drafts, but Benjamin may be a case where it’s tough to just blindly follow the numbers on.

Greg Olsen also projects to be the first or second option in this passing game. In 2013, Olsen was the fourth most consistent tight end in fantasy. He totaled 111 targets last season, which was tied for the fifth most at tight end. He was the lead receiver down the stretch for Carolina, averaging 8.4 targets per game over the final seven weeks of the season and only Jimmy Graham was targeted more frequently over that stretch out of all tight ends. All of that volume led to a career high 73 receptions and Olsen caught at least five touchdown passes for the sixth consecutive season.

Olsen is a volume play that came at a cheap price point a year ago. It’s hard to see his usage actually increase over what it was at the tail end of last season and now he’s going earlier than some tight ends with higher ceilings. It all just depends on where he will go in your draft.  If he slides into double digit rounds, by all means scoop him up because he’s a safe commodity to return on mid to late draft capital, but he doesn’t possess the week tilting ability that you may be able to acquire later. Matt Kelley wants you to be aware that Brandon Williams is an athletic monster, but he’ll need a few dominoes to fall in the injury department to Olsen or Ed Dickson to be fantasy relevant in 2014.

Ground and Pound

We know that Carolina is going to remain a run first offense. They’ve been in the top ten in terms of rushing play percentage in all three seasons with Newton as their quarterback, so record isn’t moving them off of their dependency on rushing the football.

Entering this season at age 31, DeAngelo Williams is still the lead back for this offense on early downs. His 201 carries and 843 rushing yards in 2013 were his highest totals since 2009, so there’s still not a lot to get excited about from a fantasy perspective. Williams hasn’t had 30 receptions in a season since his rookie year and posted the third lowest total in fantasy points per rush attempt last season.

Jonathan Stewart is back in the mix this season after missing 17 games over the past two seasons. His injuries have affected his play as he’s only mustered a 3.7 yards per carry over his 141 attempts the past two seasons. Still only 27 years old, there’s still hope that he can revert to the back we seen in 2009. He’s likely going to be used in some passing spots (he averages two receptions per game playing with Newton) and as a change of pace option, but there’s hardly enough volume for him to make a significant impact in fantasy.

The problem with the Panthers running game is we can’t invest into Williams or Stewart because they aren’t going to get consistent opportunities to score touchdowns. Since Newton entered the league, he has the fourth most rushing touchdowns inside the five yard line and the third member of this backfield, Mike Tolbert ranks fifth.

Most Rushing TD Inside the Five Yard Line Since 2011

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Not only do both have strong totals, they are also each efficient with their carries. Tolbert is actually even better at converting his short yardage carries into scores since becoming a member of Carolina. Here’s the team breakdown of the same chart since Tolbert joined the club two years ago.

Player Att TD TDR
Cam Newton 18 10 55.6%
Mike Tolbert 21 12 57.1%
DeAngelo Williams 12 1 8.3%
Jonathan Stewart 3 1 33.3%

 

Tolbert also has 25 or more receptions in four consecutive seasons to go along with five or more rushing scores. He was third in touchdowns per touch percentage a season ago, the issue just remains trusting him in your lineup week to week. All in all, there’s too much ambiguity here to count on rostering any of these backs outside of a draft only, best ball format because the week to week volume is up in the air.

2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections

Passing

Player Att Comp % Yards TD INT FF PTs
Cam Newton 498.2 299.3 60.1% 3586.0 22.0 14.0 203.6

 

Rushing

Player Att Yds YPC TD FF PTs
DeAngelo Williams 180.0 756.0 4.2 3.6 95.4
Mike Tolbert 45.0 193.5 4.3 5.4 51.3
Jonathan Stewart 99.0 425.7 4.3 2.5 56.4
Cam Newton 103.5 579.6 5.6 6.2 89.0

 

Receiving

Player TGT Rec Yards TD PTS PPR PTS
Kelvin Benjamin 115.7 60.2 890.8 7.2 132.4 192.6
Jerricho Cotchery 75.5 43.8 665.5 3.1 84.9 128.7
Jason Avant 45.3 24.5 332.6 1.0 39.1 63.6
Greg Olsen 110.7 70.9 821.9 6.4 120.5 191.3
DeAngelo Williams 15.1 10.6 80.3 0.3 9.9 20.5
Mike Tolbert 30.2 21.4 152.2 0.6 19.1 40.5
Jonathan Stewart 50.3 35.7 253.7 1.1 31.8 67.5

 

Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Benjamin – He has potential to score double digit touchdowns in a perfect storm and is clearly the best target of this entire group. If he dominates targets early, he may be the best rookie receiver for fantasy this season.

Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Newton – the offensive line is a mess and it’s unknown how his ankle will affect his rushing ability. A potential weekly roller coaster, his ADP could be a trap for looking for weekly stability at the position.

Best Waiver Wire Option: Stewart – Williams has been really ineffective efficiency wise and may be at the end of line. Still 27 years old and a better catcher, Stewart is the dart throw at someone rising above out of this backfield.

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