2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,972 (10th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 45 (11th)
Offensive Plays: 1,011 (16th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 595 (15th)
Rush Attempts: 416 (12th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 86 (22nd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 35 (23rd)
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One of the league’s most conservative coaches despite his “Riverboat” moniker, Ron Rivera belatedly ripped off the Mike Shula Band-Aid last offseason, firing his longtime offensive coordinator in favor of NFL lifer Norv Turner. Bringing a whopping 25 years of coordinating/head-coaching experience to the table, Turner quickly got the Panthers’ offensive house in order, spurring Cam Newton to a new career-best completion percentage by 6.2 while removing the guesswork from the backfield (Christian McCaffrey played every snap). Turner helped jump start Curtis Samuel after a shaky rookie year and made first-rounder D.J. Moore an instant contributor. The Panthers were all around more efficient, averaging 5.9 yards per play compared to 5.1 in 2017. The improvement likely would have been greater had Newton’s shoulder injury not stranded the offense down the stretch.
Which brings us to Newton. One of the most unique offensive weapons in NFL history is recovering from his second shoulder operation in three years. Newton was completely debilitated by the time he was finally shut down last Week 16, wincing even on short passes. Pro Football Focus charted the typically cannon-armed quarterback as the league’s third-worst deep ball thrower over the second half of the season, better than only Josh Johnson and Josh McCown, a pair of journeymen fill-ins. Newton also stopped running, with his rushes per game declining from nine in the first half of the season to five.
Despite that dire ending, the team has projected sunshine on Newton’s 2019 status. Exploratory surgery revealed only minor damage, while Newton said he was “feeling great” by early May. He resumed throwing a “regulation-size football” before mandatory minicamp. If Newton is actually healthy, he will be in excellent position for an immediate rebound. Even with the loss of Devin Funchess in free agency, Newton is returning to one of the most dangerous supporting casts of his career. Samuel scored seven touchdowns on just 47 touches last season, while Moore looked like he wasn’t far away from being one of the NFL’s most explosive playmakers. Moore’s 427 yards after the catch were good for 11th in the league as a rookie. Amongst wideouts in the top 20 in YAC, only Calvin Ridley played fewer snaps. Moore is a dark horse to make the leap to WR2 status.
The departure of Funchess and featuring of Samuel and Moore points to a philosophical change on offense. After years of giving Newton big, broad targets in hopes of corralling his overthrows, the Panthers are finally focused on playmakers. As Samuel and Moore’s game-breaking plays and Newton’s increased 2018 efficiency can attest, the early returns were promising. That’s not to mention Newton’s connection with McCaffrey, which we’ll get to in a second.
Depth could be a problem. Longtime Vikings afterthought Jarius Wright is back for another year of slot duties. Going on 30, Wright has eclipsed 500 yards exactly once. Chris Hogan and Torrey Smith, who were two of the league’s least-effective outside receivers in 2018, will be duking it out for No. 4 status. Seventh-rounder Terry Godwin, a disappointing five-star recruit at Georgia, is the only other option in the slot.
At tight end, Greg Olsen has suffered three major foot injuries since the start of 2017. In the 16 games he’s managed to play during that timespan, Olsen has posted a 54/482/5 line. The yards would be his fewest over a full season since 2010, the final year of his doomed Bears career. Any contribution, real life or otherwise, will be a bonus. Second-year pro Ian Thomas offers more intrigue than Olsen but is coming off an injury of his own, a nondescript “leg” issue that held him out for the bulk of the offseason. Thomas’ 36 receptions last season were second amongst rookie tight ends. He posted a 28/268/2 line across his seven starts, which extrapolates to 64/613/5 over a full campaign. A high-end athlete, Thomas is worth rostering as an upside TE2.
The Panthers’ backfield is pretty easy to break down: It’s Christian McCaffrey. CMC is coming off a truly staggering sophomore campaign. His 966 snaps were 70 more than any other back, and the most by a runner since Matt Forte in 2014. Until his Week 17 breather, McCaffrey had taken only 22 plays off all season. That simply doesn’t happen in modern football.
When McCaffrey was on the field, he was busy setting records and exploding misconceptions. McCaffrey’s 107 receptions were the most ever by a running back, as well as the most in Panthers history. As a runner, McCaffrey melted the narrative that he couldn’t bang between the tackles, clearing 1,000 yards, averaging over 5.0 yards per carry and securing first downs on 24 percent of his 219 totes. On the whole, McCaffrey’s 13 touchdowns were tied for ninth in the league while his 1,965 yards from scrimmage were third. His 12 carries inside the five tied for seventh.
McCaffrey isn’t resting on his laurels. He spent the offseason going viral on social media for looking ridiculously ripped, claiming he got both stronger and faster. "You can always get bigger, faster, stronger,” McCaffrey said in May. The Panthers paid the expected lip service to scaling back CMC’s workload but did not put their money where their mouth is, adding only fifth-rounder Jordan Scarlett to the backfield. They have no plans to fix what isn’t broken. Lab created for a PPR back, McCaffrey is nearly as dominant in standard. McCaffrey probably won’t match last year’s ridiculous receptions total, but he still has room to grow in the carries department. Elite in every phase of the running game, McCaffrey is barreling toward another top-three fantasy effort.
If the Panthers have a No. 2 back, it’s Newton. Despite Newton’s decreased rushing down the stretch last season, a healthy Newton has never not been a running Newton. Newton’s career lows as a rusher are: 90 attempts, 359 yards and four scores. He has averaged 116/601/7. Maybe the Panthers will work harder to protect Newton’s shoulder, but he is still going to be a goal-line/short-yardage weapon. Newton’s rushing is one reason he remains a cinch top-eight fantasy quarterback.
The Panthers’ over/under is typically around 7.5. If not for Newton’s injury and the offense’s subsequent collapse last year, this probably would have been 8-9 win team instead of the 7-9 squad it ended up as. The cavalry did not come in free agency, with only cosmetic changes being made. The Panthers are betting on a maturation of talent on the offensive side of the ball and more versatility on defense. For the first time, Rivera is abandoning his signature 4-3 front in favor of a more hybrid approach. As he did down the stretch last season, Rivera will call his own plays in 2019. Although Warren Sharp charts the Panthers as having one of the league’s tougher schedules, they do begin with 4-of-6 games against the Bucs, Cardinals and Jaguars before their Week 7 bye. Perhaps a hot start could be the springboard to the over. The smart money — if there is such a thing — is probably on the under. The Saints and Falcons are better on paper, and the Panthers have the feel of a team in transition. They appear set to go with a rookie left tackle in Greg Little. A poor gambler, I would not take my own advice and just avoid the situation altogether.