Evan Silva

Offseason Low Down

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Panthers Fantasy Preview

Friday, June 16, 2017


Panthers Offensive Profile Under Mike Shula

2013-2016 Pass Attempts Rank: 30th, 19th, 27th, 20th
2013-2016 Rush Attempts Rank: 7th, 8th, 1st, 7th
2013-2016 Play Volume Rank: 26th, 9th, 8th, 8th
2013-2016 Yards Per Play Rank: 23rd, 20th, 13th, 21st
Unaccounted for Targets from 2016 (Rank): 163 (10th)
Unaccounted for Carries from 2016 (Rank): 51 (17th)

Projected Starting Lineup

QB: Cam Newton
RB: Christian McCaffrey
WR: Kelvin Benjamin
WR: Devin Funchess
WR: Curtis Samuel
TE: Greg Olsen
LT: Matt Kalil
LG: Andrew Norwell
C: Ryan Kalil
RG: Trai Turner
RT: Daryl Williams

 

Passing Game Outlook

Regression was expected following Cam Newton’s NFL MVP season, but not to that extent. As the quarterback hit total allowed by Carolina’s injury-ruined line ballooned from 61 the year prior to 93 in 2016, Newton spent much of the season in an on-field daze. Cam suffered a Week 4 concussion on a brain-rattling goal-line hit by Falcons MLB Deion Jones, then partially tore the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder in Week 14, necessitating offseason surgery. Newton was horribly inaccurate down the stretch, completing an anemic 46.8% of his passes over the final seven games. After the season, coach Ron Rivera admitted Cam was “shook,” and will have to dial back his running going forward, even after Newton set career lows in both per-game carries (6.0) and rushing yards (23.9) in 2016. The good news is Cam should experience positive regression after setting a career low in touchdown rate (3.7%). The bad news is Carolina’s line remains a concern, Newton’s fantasy outlook would take a major hit if his rushing usage further drops, and he missed all spring practices to rehab the shoulder, costing Newton opportunities to get comfortable in a revised offense featuring shorter-area, higher-percentage passing. Although Cam looks like a boom-bust investment, I personally have warmed up to him over the course of the offseason. A second- to third-round pick at this time last year, I am targeting Newton around the ninth-/tenth-round turn to chase his overall QB1 ceiling.

After missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, Kelvin Benjamin was ineffective enough in his 2016 return to warrant at least partial blame for Newton’s struggles. Benjamin averaged a league-low 1.80 yards of separation (Next Gen Stats), showing an inability to get open that resulted in ten penalties, most among all NFC receivers. After topping 90 yards consecutively in Weeks 1-2, Benjamin managed 53 yards per game the rest of the way. Still a fourth- to fifth-round pick in early 2017 drafts, Benjamin’s ADP tumbled into the sixth-/seventh-round range when he reported to the offseason program out of shape, and a GIF surfaced of a heavy-looking Benjamin running a slow, sloppy route during OTAs. While Benjamin’s red flags are undeniably concerning, it is also true that Benjamin has posted PPR WR16 and WR27 finishes in his two full seasons, is a proven touchdown scorer with big weekly upside, and remains the Panthers’ unchallenged No. 1 wide receiver. His WR29 (FF Calc) and WR35 (MFL10) ADPs are plenty beatable.

Despite imposing size (6’4/232) and impressive Pro Day speed (4.50), Devin Funchess’ Michigan tape revealed a prospect who failed to create separation and win contested catches. He has continued to flounder in both areas in the pros and consequently struggled for playing time, logging snap rates of 45% (2015) and 44% (2016). Funchess maintains glass-half-full appeal on the basis that he just turned 23 and has scored ten TDs on 59 career catches, while Carolina is missing the NFL’s tenth most targets (163) from last year. At OTAs, Rivera talked up Funchess’ leadership skills and indicated his role will grow following the departures of Ted Ginn and Corey Brown. “Here’s a guy that’s going into his third season who can be a really big player for us,” Rivera said. Funchess should be given every opportunity to win the first-team Z receiver job opposite Benjamin. He is worth a late-round dart in best-ball leagues.

Keenly aware of Benjamin and Funchess’ inability to get open, since-fired GM Dave Gettleman used the 40th overall pick on 4.31 burner Curtis Samuel, who logged most of his 2016 playing time at slot receiver for Ohio State, but also dabbled at tailback and averaged 7.5 career yards per carry while securing 107 passes in three years in Columbus. As Samuel is supremely young for a rookie (21 in August) and lacks a defined position, the Panthers likely won’t know whether he’s capable of making a big first-year impact until the pads go on in training camp. Despite smallish size (5’11/196), Samuel was an impressive enough inside runner on college tape that it’s conceivable he would fill the Christian McCaffrey role at least partially were Carolina’s first-round pick to go down. Otherwise, Samuel will likely do most of his work in the slot. He is the favorite for third receiver duties over Brenton Bersin and Damiere Byrd.

32-year-old Greg Olsen is old reliable in Carolina’s passing attack. Olsen has not missed a game since the 2007 season, and he has finished as a top-seven fantasy tight end in five straight years. Although Olsen’s box-score output was hindered by Newton’s late-season inaccuracy in 2016, individually he showed no signs of slowdown. Olsen finished No. 4 among 40 qualified tight ends in PFF’s yards per route run (2.09), No. 2 in Number Fire’s Next Expected Points among tight ends, and No. 2 in Tight End Success Rate. Annually one of the highest-floor picks in fantasy, Olsen is well deserving of his TE4 Average Draft Position. Fantasy leaguers are taking only Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, and Jordan Reed ahead of him.

Running Game Outlook

Although No. 8 overall pick Christian McCaffrey is a superlative pro prospect by every known evaluation method, it is fair to wonder just how big of a fantasy impact McCaffrey is capable of making in Carolina. As dual-threat quarterbacks tend to scramble rather than check down when their primary reads are covered, no running back to play with Newton has reached 30 receptions in a half decade. Newton remains a goal-line threat, while it’s conceivable the Panthers will favor 235-pound Jonathan Stewart over McCaffrey (5’11/202) in short-yardage situations, curbing his TD upside. Even as the first- and second-round selections of dynamic short-area weapons McCaffrey and Samuel signal a revised offensive philosophy, there are no guarantees the Panthers will successfully execute, or that Cam’s playing style will change. At his RB13 (MFL10s) and RB15 (FF Calc) ADPs, McCaffrey is one of this year’s riskiest fantasy picks.

The Panthers re-signed Jonathan Stewart to a two-year, $8 million deal after a plodding 2016 campaign in which he averaged a four-year low in yards per carry (3.78) and missed his usual three games with a hamstring injury. Stewart will stay involved in the Panthers’ backfield, although it’s not yet clear to what extent. There is ample volume to be spread around in a Carolina offense that has finished top eight in rushing attempts in each of Shula’s four years as coordinator, while short-yardage/goal-line work arguably best suits Stewart’s skill set at this stage of his career. Last season, Stewart efficiently converted 9-of-16 carries inside the five-yard line into touchdowns and forced the NFL’s second most missed tackles (47) on rushing attempts, per PFF’s charts. Indications during the spring were that Stewart may retain Carolina's lead grinder role while McCaffrey eases in as a passing-down specialist and early-down change of pace. With 8-10 TDs still in his range of outcomes, Stewart is an excellent pick in the double-digit rounds.

2017 Vegas Win Total

The Panthers’ Win Total is 8.5 games with a heavy lean (-140) to the over. Two years removed from a Super Bowl berth, they are unsurprisingly a popular bounce-back team. Carolina’s 2016 Pythagorean Win Expectation (7.0-7.1) suggests they underachieved relative to their 6-10 finish. Whereas the in-division schedule isn’t easy against a high-scoring and dangerous NFC South, the out-of-division slate is surmountable versus the AFC East, NFC North, 49ers (away), and Eagles (home). Overall, Rotoworld SOS analyst Warren Sharp identified the Panthers as having this year's ninth-softest schedule. I expect Carolina’s defense and running game to take big steps forward, but the passing game and offensive line remain untrustworthy. Nevertheless, I’m chasing the chalk here and forecasting a rebound to 9-11 victories.



Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva



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