By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson (with Contributions from Joe Zollo and Chris Tyler)
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After something of a Super Bowl hangover for the Panthers in 2016, Cam Newton and company bounced back offensively in 2017 with the addition of some speed on offense. 1st round draft pick Christian McCaffrey was something of a spark plug and was one of only three RBs to record more than 80 receptions in 2017. As good as Run CMC was, the Panthers still lacked a true number 1 wide receiver. Halfway through the season, the Panthers traded WR Kelvin Benjamin, their 1st round pick in 2014, to the Buffalo Bills. That moved former 2nd round pick Devin Funchess into the number one spot on offense. From Weeks 9 through 16, Funchess was WR23. Solid, but I’m sure the Panthers wanted more.
RB Jonathan Stewart handled the heavy rushing load but had his worst season since an injury-plagued 2013. Greg Olsen suffered an injury in Week 2 and didn’t return until Week 12, a week too early it appeared. He scored all of 40.1 fantasy points last season. At least the Panthers had a top 10 D/ST unit, right?
|(Projected Starting Lineup)|
|QB2||Taylor Heinicke (w/ HOU)||0.60||QB59|
|QB3||(R) Kyle Allen||N/A||N/A|
|RB1||C.J. Anderson (w/ DEN)||173.00||RB19|
|WR2||Torrey Smith (w/ PHI)||92.70||WR67|
|WR3||(R) D.J. Moore||N/A||N/A|
|TE2||(R) Ian Thomas||N/A||N/A|
In 2015, Cam Newton won the MVP award and finished as fantasy’s number 1 QB. In 2016, the wheels fell off and he finished as QB17. Heading into 2017, Cam was officially under the radar and rewarded those who believed, finishing as QB5. Does this mean Cam is due to regress in 2018?
Here’s what I can tell you about Cam Newton the quarterback: he isn’t that great. Over seven seasons in the NFL, Cam has only two where his completion percentage has exceeded 60%. He’s never had a QB rating above 100.00. He’s never thrown less than 10 INTs in a season. He has only one 4,000 yard passing season. He also averages only 22.5 passing TDs a season. But Cam Newton as a rusher? That’s where things get interesting. He’s finished as the leading rusher on the Panthers twice in seven years. He’s finished as the second leading rusher four times. He’s rushed for less than 500 yards only once. He’s finished with double digit TDs twice. Now put his overall rushing numbers against other RBs in the league since 2011: 23rd in rushing attempts, 18th in rushing yards, 3rd in rushing TDs, and 1st in yards per carry (minimum of 400 rushing attempts).
Because of his numbers as a runner, he’s a valuable fantasy QB. He’s not going to throw for 4,500 yards and 30 TDs, but when you get 1 point per 10 rushing yards, points add up. As a result, Cam Newton is a top 10 option at QB. I have him as QB6 in my offseason rankings but you could convince me to move him lower or even higher. Healthy receivers, a new lead RB to pair with McCaffrey — yeah, there’s a ton of potential for Cam to once again post top 5 numbers at QB. My biggest fear? The addition of C.J. Anderson. He ran for 1,000 yards last year in Denver and will take over the role from recently released Jonathan Stewart. Anderson is younger and quicker. If the Panthers try to limit Cam’s rushes like they tried to do in 2016, Newton isn’t even a top 15 option at QB. I may have actually talked myself into lowering Cam’s preseason ranking. Funny how that works out.
Gone is Jonathan Stewart. Arriving is C.J. Anderson. The Panthers have used a tandem in the backfield for close to a decade. From 2008 to 2014, it was DeAngelo Williams with Jonathan Stewart. Stewart ran mostly solo in 2015 and 2016, sporting two of the more productive seasons of his career. In 2017, the Panthers teamed him with rookie Christian McCaffrey (more on him later). After one of the worst years of his career, the Panthers released Stewart and signed Anderson to pair with McCaffrey. What does this mean? What it likely points to is Anderson not eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark he hit for the first time last year with Denver. Over the last 10 seasons, the Panthers have had a 1,000 yard rusher only three times (Williams and Stewart each eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2009). Since Cam Newton became the QB in 2011, the most rushing yards in a season for the Panthers belongs to Stewart with 989 in 2015. Newton averages 118 rushing attempts per season. For Anderson to have a chance to eclipse 1,000 yards, using his career yards per carry average of 4.4, he’ll need at least 227 rushing attempts. Since 2011, the Panthers have had a running back eclipse 200 carries three times. Only once (2013) have the Panthers had 3 rushers eclipse 100 rushing attempts with one of them eclipsing 200. What all these numbers mean is that Anderson is not likely to see more than 180 rushes. Even at 4 yards per carry, that’s 720 yards. Newton will likely have 8 rushing TDs, leaving only about 5 for Anderson. I’ll give Anderson a little more credit and say he rushes for 750 yards and 6 TDs. Add in about 15 receptions for another 150 yards and you’re only looking at about top 35 numbers for the season. Anderson is a FLEX at best, not an RB2 or RB3.
The RB to own in Carolina is Christian McCaffrey. He’s not going to light up the ground game — he had only 435 rushing yards in 2017 — but his ability in the passing game is what makes him attractive in PPR leagues like Club Fantasy. He had almost 1,100 total yards on 80 receptions with 7 TDs. That’s 218.2 fantasy points. But for all the talk of how electric McCaffrey was in college — his ability to turn a short catch into a big play — he had only 4 rushes where he gained more than 15 yards. And it wasn’t the offensive line’s fault. Pro Football Focus ranked the Panthers line 10th best in the league last year. For everything McCaffrey did average or above average, he led all RBs last year in targets and finished third in receptions. There’s something to be said for volume. Anderson’s presence doesn’t scare me when it comes to drafting McCaffrey — it does though when I think about drafting Cam. McCaffrey will be used more as a receiver than a runner. I look for very similar stats in 2018 from McCaffrey as last year — something like 82 receptions for 700 yards and 4 TDs and around 450 yards rushing with 3 TDs. That will put McCaffrey on the cusp of RB1 numbers. I understand not wanting to rely on Run CMC as your number one RB. Just know that you can.
Behind these two are the B squad — Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne. The Panthers typically declare CAP inactive when Stewart was healthy and I view them doing something similar this year with Anderson at the helm. Whittaker adds value on special teams and chips in as a 2nd receiving back. Both are names to know but hardly provide fantasy value you can’t live without.
Devin Funchess is the new number one WR for the Panthers. He set career highs in 2017 in targets (113), receptions (63), yards (840), and touchdowns (8). A decent year, but those stats don’t scream “number one receiver!” As mentioned in the 2017 recap, from Weeks 9 through 16 last year, Funchess was WR23. This coincided with the trade of Kelvin Benjamin and took place during Greg Olsen’s absence. With Olsen set to return and a full year to prepare as the team’s number one wideout, can we count on Funchess to set new career highs?
Funchess is a “15 yards off the line of scrimmage” type of receiver. He had only four receptions on balls that travelled more than 20 yards down the field. He’s tall at 6’4” but not very fast — his 40 time at the 2015 Combine was a measly 4.70 — and used to play TE in college. Safe to say, the Panthers have an athletic TE who their offense runs through. With a healthy Olsen on the field all year, I don’t envision a top 30 finish for Funchess in 2018. He’s more of a WR3/FLEX play for me.
The Panthers acquired Torrey Smith from the Eagles during the offseason. One thing Smith does well is track down the deep ball. Newton has a strong arm but he’s been mediocre throughout his career while throwing the deep ball. Only twice has Newton ranked in the top 6 in QB rating on passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield. One year he had Steve Smith as his primary target (2012). The other was his MVP season (2015) when he had Ted Ginn Jr. Torrey Smith started his career with 10 TDs over this first two seasons on such passes. Over his career, he has 21 TDs on passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield. Smith was brought in to stretch the field because there’s no one else on the roster who can do it like Smith. Smith isn’t a premiere fantasy target at this stage of his career. He’s likely a WR5 or WR6, if he’s rostered at all. Look for 40 catches for 520 yards and 4 TDs. Solid but nothing spectacular.
Now comes the intrigue. It was clear last year that Newton needed help at WR. With Olsen out most of the year, the onus fell on a RB to be the best receiving option. That’s never good. The Panthers traded for Smith (a good start) and then drafted D.J. Moore out of Maryland. Moore was a productive receiver in college despite 8 different QBs throwing footballs to him. He runs a 4.42 40 and played mainly outside. His height (5’11”) may suggest a career in the slot, but at 215 lbs, he should be able to handle press coverage at the next level. He finished last year with 2.78 yards per route run in 2017 and was targeted 131 times, 6th highest among incoming rookies. Moore’s stock is so high, NFL Network’s Steve Smith (the former Panthers WR) says Moore is the closest thing he’s seen to himself come into the league since, well, Smith came into the league. Talk about high praise and high expectations. If there’s a rookie WR to make an impact in the league this year — and I only see two possibilities based on opportunity — Moore falls into the category. I have Moore as WR55 entering the season. I think his ceiling is WR3 status — around 50 catches for 670 yards and 6 TDs. Again, ceiling. If you want to gamble on a rookie, be my guest.
Last year’s 2nd round pick, Curtis Samuel, was supposed to be a lethal weapon out of the slot in 2017. But in only 9 games, he produced an anemic 15 receptions for 115 yards. Keep in mind, he was predominantly a running back in college. One who excelled out of the backfield, but I digress. A healthy Samuel helps stretch the field with the likes of Smith and Moore, but don’t expect major production unless there is a major injury in front of him.
Greg Olsen finally succumbed to injury. After playing in 14 games his rookie season, Olsen ran off a string of 9 seasons where he didn’t miss a game. He played in only 7 last year. The Panthers certainly missed his presence. His injury coupled with Samuel’s led the Panthers offense to use McCaffrey more as a safety valve than an explosive playmaker. The Panthers anticipate Olsen being 100% this year because there’s not a backup on the roster capable of moderately replicating Olsen’s production like they had last year when Ed Dickson was able to fill in. Prior to last year, Olsen had three straight seasons of 1,000 yards receiving, the only TE in NFL history to achieve that feat. Olsen just turned 33. Jason Witten just retired after his age-35 season. Delanie Walker of the Titans will go into this season at 34. If I had to guess, this is likely to be Olsen’s last or second to last productive season. He’s a top 5 TE this season — I have him ranked as TE4 currently — and he should see 75 catches for 900 yards and 5 TDs. Don’t forget about him because he was hurt a year ago!
The Panthers drafted Ian Thomas out of Indiana in the 4th round. He was a JUCO transfer so there’s not a ton of production on his resume. But he’s athletic — 4.74 40 — and large at 6’3” 260 lbs. If Olsen goes down, he’ll see time but likely won’t light the league on fire out of the gate. As I’m sure you’ve seen me say a time or two this offseason — know the name.
Rookie to Watch
Since day one in college, WR D.J. Moore has been lighting up the competition. Last season, he produced 1,000 yards receiving with four different quarterbacks. It’s difficult to be that comfortable with every passer, let alone eight different ones over his career. His frame is average at 5’11” 215 lbs, so his chances of unlocking his true next level skills might have to come from the slot. Moore is a special player and with a quarterback like Newton, he’ll make an early impact in the upcoming season. – Chris Tyler
It pains me to say this, but Torrey Smith might actually do well in this offense. Here are his quarterbacks throughout his time in the NFL: Joe Flacco (deep ball passer), Colin Kaepernick (strong arm), Blaine Gabbert (backup), and Carson Wentz (balanced). His last season over 90 targets was 2014 with the Ravens and he averaged over 100 targets per year every year in Baltimore. He now joins Cam Newton in Carolina who also has a strong arm and can throw the ball deep. It sure looks like Torrey Smith can succeed in Carolina, right? Smith is a proven one trick pony and that one trick is being a deep threat. Don’t draft him in a PPR league but if you are in the late rounds of a traditional league, Torrey Smith could give you a boost when he has a good matchup. – Joe Zollo
2018 Loose Ends
The Panthers face off with the NFC East and the AFC North in 2018. Add in their 6 games within the NFC South and you’ve got a tough road to get back to the playoffs. Their fantasy playoff schedule — at CLE, vs NO, vs ATL — isn’t that appealing either. If new offensive coordinator Norv Turner keeps allowing Cam Newton to run for more than 500 yards, Newton will continue to hold QB1 potential. If they reel him back like in 2016, buyer beware. McCaffrey and Olsen are must owns as top options at RB and TE, respectively. Funchess has a WR2 ceiling with WR3 realism and D.J. Moore is a late round pickup worthy of a roster spot and a must own in Dynasty. The Panthers D/ST should be a top 15 option but that schedule doesn’t make for great matchups which is why I have them ranked 15th to start the year. All in all, the Panthers may stumble some out of the gate learning a new offense, but I think they’ll pull it together. Here are some other tidbits I found while researching the Panthers:
- Cam Newton had the lowest yards per attempt average of his career in 2017 at 6.71. In fact, Cam has never averaged more than 7.98 yards per attempt in any season of his career.
- Only 17.6% of Cam’s dropbacks resulted in play action. Cam’s completion percentage on play action passes was 62.9%. By comparison, on non-play action passes, his completion percentage was 58.3%.
- Cam’s passing yardage totals have decreased each of the last three years — from 3,837 to 3,509 to 3,302.
- Christian McCaffrey allowed 10 QB pressures while pass blocking in 2017, tied for 3rd most among RBs. I should remind you that McCaffrey’s greatest skill is his ability to catch the football, which is why he’s on the field during passing downs.
- C.J. Anderson’s 2.78 yards after contact ranked 17th best in the NFL in 2017. He also forced 37 missed tackles on rushes, 8th best among RBs.
- Torrey Smith had 175 yards receiving on passes that travelled more than 20 yards down the field in 2017. That would’ve been the most on the Panthers had he played for them last year.
- Devin Funchess had only 1.63 yards per route run in 2017. His career best was in his rookie year (2015) with 2.04.
- Since 2012, Greg Olsen ranks 3rd in receptions (400), 3rd in targets (629), and 3rd in receiving yards (5,035) but only 7th in TDs with 28 — an average of 4.7 per season.
|4||** BYE WEEK **|
|10||11/8 (Thurs)||@ PIT|
|15||12/17 (Mon)||vs NO|