When the Panthers committed $25 million over four years to RB Miles Sanders, the team clearly knew what it wanted from its rusher. And what it wants will result in plenty of fantasy opportunities for the former Eagles RB.
It’s easy to forget how close the Carolina Panthers were to winning the NFC South, finishing just a game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It took a coaching change from Matt Rhule to Steve Wilkes and a commitment to the run game to lead the Panthers to five of their eight wins over the last couple of months of the season.
Sanders joins a new offensive scheme that will be incredibly beneficial to the running back room. Not only is offensive coordinator Thomas Brown a former running backs coach — who enjoyed a Cam Akers revival in Los Angeles with the Rams — but the team also brought in Duce Staley. The former Lions assistant head coach led Detroit’s fantasy-friendly backfield and will now do the same with the Panthers.
Miles Sanders in his new threads 🔥 pic.twitter.com/67eFbh854h
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) April 26, 2023
On top of that, Frank Reich is in town, fresh off supplying Jonathan Taylor with the workload he needed to be a top-tier fantasy asset. However, whether Sanders can seize the opportunity to do the same is another discussion entirely.
Miles Sanders 2023 Fantasy Football Outlook
Sanders has had an efficient career, averaging 5.0 yards per carry in his four years as an Eagle across 739 rushes. However, Philadelphia was always reluctant to give the Penn State product a heavy workload. That changed in 2022.
Sanders saw 35% of his career rushes in 2022, a 259-carry mark that ranked eighth in the NFL. The running back had never finished inside the top 20 among single-season carry leaders, nor had he run the ball more than 200 times before last season.
Leaders in Yards Per Carry amongst running backs who had over 100 carries in 2022:
(Data via @FTNFantasy)
— Jeremy (@PopesFFH) May 14, 2023
However, the real story around Sanders’ fantasy relevance has always been his lack of touchdowns. He had a mere nine rushing touchdowns in his first 480 rushes leading up to 2022, an absurdly low rate not helped by having just three receiving touchdowns in that span, all of which came in his rookie season.
Positive regression finally came. Sanders rumbled for 11 rushing touchdowns with the reigning NFC Champions, which, combined with his solid efficiency (4.9 ypc in 2022), led Sanders to be the RB15 in PPR formats.
In standard and half-PPR leagues, Sanders was even more valuable. That’s because, for all his positive traits as a rusher, Sanders has hands equivalent to another Eagles legend in Nelson Agholor. The man struggles in pass protection and in most facets of the receiving game. The team all but pulled him off third-down duties in 2022, resulting in a career-low 20 receptions despite playing in the most games of his career (17). Having a rushing quarterback in Jalen Hurts didn’t help that side, either.
The Panthers ranked 12th in rushing attempts per game and 10th in rushing yards per game.
But none of that really matters because a new sheriff is in town.
Reich, the new head coach in Carolina, brought his battalion of coaches. Staley and Brown, who should have standout voices in Reich’s offense, were both running back coaches in the past. Staley also worked with Sanders in Philadelphia.
Rushing attempts per game
- Reich’s 2021 Colts (full season with a healthy Jonathan Taylor): 18th
- Staley’s 2022 Lions: 13th
- Brown’s 2022 Rams: 26th
Off the cusp, those aren’t impressive numbers. Yet each offense centralized its rushing game around one RB. None of them involved backfields with another 100-carry rusher, though D’Andre Swift (99) was quite close.
Leading rushers’ carries/team carries
- 2021 Jonathan Taylor: 66.5%
- Jamaal Williams: 54.6%
- Cam Akers: 45.7%
The league average carry amount for a team in 2022 was 449 rushing attempts across 17 games. Given Sanders’ high probability to obtain at least 55% of that — the middle ground of the three above — that could book the new Panthers rusher for 247 carries, about what he did last year—more on his projections below.
Chuba Hubbard is the incumbent and the clear RB2 in the backfield. The 2021 fourth-round pick enjoyed a more efficient sophomore season, raising his yards-per-touch from 4.0 to 5.8.
Still, he should be nothing more than a change-of-pace back with handcuff upside to Sanders. The team’s financial commitment to their newly signed rusher suggests precisely that, which gets compounded by the new regime in town that did not draft Hubbard.
Thomas Brown, Josh McCown, Duce Staley all working together with rookie minicamp QBs and the one RB on the minicamp roster, Camerun Peoples from App State pic.twitter.com/dss3GRhv40
— Augusta Stone (@augustalstone) May 13, 2023
Neither Hubbard nor Sanders are skilled pass catchers, however. Perhaps Raheem Blackshear, a dynamic home-run hitter, could carve out a small third-down role. Time will tell.
Sanders is smack-dab in the middle of the RB dead zone yet again despite his 2022 breakout season. He is the RB18 in PPR formats and sits as the 58th player off the board, according to FantasyPros’ ADP.
In 12-person leagues, this makes Sanders a late fourth-round pick in 1QB redrafts.
Names around him include Aaron Jones (RB16), J.K. Dobbins (RB17), Joe Mixon (RB19), and Dameon Pierce (RB20).
It was mentioned above, but expecting a similar workload for Sanders seems more than fair. The offensive scheme is a plus, and the financial side of the contract, combined with the lack of actual competition, could shape Sanders up for his most significant role yet.
But what made Sanders finally fantasy relevant in 2022 were his touchdowns. And with a rookie quarterback in Bryce Young — or a dusty veteran like Andy Dalton (sigh) — those end-zone opportunities may be tough to find.
Panthers new-look offense 🔥
QB Bryce Young
RB Miles Sanders
WR Adam Thielen
WR D.J. Chark
WR Jonathan Mingo pic.twitter.com/MhO0XHgIpH
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 28, 2023
The Panthers were not too fond of the end zone last year. D’Onta Foreman led the RB room with just five touchdowns, three of which came in a Week 8 tilt against a sorry Atlanta defense. The great Christian McCaffrey had just two rushing scores, with Blackshear grabbing three of his own.
Fantasy production will still be there if Sanders finds himself in the middle ground — sitting somewhere from four to six scores. But the weekly ceiling will be capped by a lack of touchdowns and receiving work.
There are also some small health concerns, with Sanders missing eight games combined in 2020 and 2021. It wasn’t an issue in 2022, but it’s something all RBs must deal with.
Just because Young is the future doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains. Expect Sanders to be a risk/reward RB2, finishing around where he is drafted. However, he should be a great fit in certain fantasy rosters that build a safer core — going WR/TE/WR, perhaps — to avoid the bust games that Sanders will have.
A Look Inside the Carolina Panthers
Editor’s Note: We don’t want to leave you hanging on the rest of the team. While Michael focused on Miles Sanders in fantasy football, here is a quick look at the other fantasy-relevant Panthers by Josh Hudson and Ryan Weisse.
It’s always hard to trust rookie QBs, whether they are the first pick or not. With a severe lack of weapons, it’s probably best to pass on Young in redraft leagues for 2023 unless you play in a 2-QB format.
Frank Reich and Duce Staley are pretty well-known to run a committee at running back, typically splitting out passing game work. While Hubbard is nowhere near as talented as Miles Sanders, he could have a role akin to Nyheim Hines, which could pay dividends in PPR formats. However, he’s still only worth a late-round flyer in deeper leagues.
The move to Carolina presents an exciting opportunity for Thielen. He goes from being in Justin Jefferson’s shadow and losing time to KJ Osborn to being the Panthers’ #1 WR. This is not a very good team, and they should be throwing a ton. If the aging Thielen can stay on the field, he should be a lock for 100 targets and could approach his WR30 finish from a year ago.
Chark, like Thielen, needs to get his health in check to be relevant in fantasy. He has flashed deep-play ability but has never played an entire season in his career. However, he is the biggest WR on the team and has a unique skill set. He could push into the fantasy WR3 territory if he plays 16 games.
The draft capital is there for Mingo as an early second-round pick. He should also gel with Young as they play together in rookie mini-camps. He wasn’t anyone’s favorite WR in this draft class and will start the year as the team’s WR3, at best, but he could develop as the season progress. It’s probably best to avoid him on draft day and grab him on waivers later.
Hurst is a good tight end but has never popped for fantasy football. His best finish was back in 2020 as the TE11. He’s now on the 4th team of his career and arguably his most uncertain QB situation. However, Frank Reich has had success with fantasy TEs, and the team has no real alpha at WR. There is a non-zero chance Hurst becomes a safety blanket for Bryce Young and makes a push to the fantasy Top 10. He’s worth your last pick if you already planned on streaming TEs in 2023.
We will be covering every team this offseason. So check back here often for all of our A Look Inside articles.