Sunday, August 17, 2014

Carolina Panthers fantasy football deep dive!

TOP SHELF TALENT: Casual fantasy players almost always surprised when I tell them that  Cam Newton has been a Top 5 fantasy QB each and every year he has been in the league. Cam’s impact and success seems to go more unnoticed than it should but the bottom line is this: Cam is the first player in NFL history with 50 passing TDs and 25 rushing TDs in his first three seasons, and he is also the first player in NFL history with 10,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in his first three seasons. There is the concern that Cam will run less, but when it counts I believe he will still be running. Cam is coming off a career-worst 585 rushing yards last season, but he still had more rushing yards than any other QB in the NFL last season. Don’t let the new receiving corps detract you either. Cam had relatively weak options last year. Staring down Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, is as good if not better than Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn. Cam has never missed a game and he is maturing as well, coming off a 12-win season and getting a taste of the playoffs. The nice thing too about drafting Cam to lead your team is he can likely be had at a discount in your draft (assuming you are not playing with die-hard locals of course). Cam is typically going in the late 7th round or early 8th round as the 10th QB off the board. If you can draft six skill position players and then land Cam in the 7th round that is smooth drafting.  

You are going to perhaps call me crazy, and we can circle back in five months, but I am putting rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin in the “Top Shelf” fantasy category. I drank the kool-aid and called this back in early May and listed Benjamin as the #20 WR in the “Expert Rankings” that are now published in the Fantasy Index Magazine (only the Top 20 are submitted per position). It was an insane call compared to the entries – that, or it is the type of out-of-the-box thinking that separates you from the masses. Benjamin no doubt gives Cam Newton a different type of weapon at receiver than he’s ever worked with as he towers at 6’5”. I think the two are going to form a tremendous bond. Benjamin led the ACC last year with 15 receiving TDs and he ranked tied for 3rd in the nation. I think Benjamin is going to be a busy red zone target as well in the NFL. 

In terms of team defense, you have to put the Panthers Defense clearly in the Top Shelf Talent category. The Panthers have a lethal sack combo of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and arguably the best front seven in the NFL overall, anchored by perhaps the best middle linebacker in the game (now that Ray Lewis has retired) in Luke Kuechly. As an added bonus, the Panthers don’t have their BYE week until late November so you can draft the Panthers as your only defense and not have to worry about using a slot on a second defense for three months. 


After an amazing eight straight seasons of Steve Smith leading the team in receiving yards, and ten years out of 11, it was TE Greg Olsen who actually was the Panthers leading receiver last season. In terms of receptions, Olsen has improved each season as a Panther from 45 in 2011 (Cam Newton’s rookie season), to 69 in 2012 and 72 last year. There’s no reason to think that Olsen’s numbers will improve from what they were last year, but there’s no reason to think they will be much lower either. Over the last two seasons, Olsen is the only tight end in the NFL who has caught a quarter of his team’s passes and Olsen has finished in the Top 10 among tight ends each of the last two years. 


It’s awfully hard to continue drafting Jonathan Stewart year over year. He is such a fantasy tease. The former 13th overall pick in the NFL Draft sure does look the part, but he simply can’t stay healthy – not to mention that Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert are there to steal carries and touchdowns. Still, Stewart is the team’s most likely back to turn into a bellcow (running back who carries a huge load) and he’s shown glimpses in the past. Stewart had 1,272 total yards and 11 TDs in 2009, and 47 receptions in 2011. I certainly wouldn’t reach for Jonathan Stewart, but if he falls in drafts he is a sneaky later-round gamble to add to your roster. 


Jerricho Cotchery is set to be a pretty critical cog on the Panthers’ offensive machine this season – and he hardly registers a blip on the fantasy radar. Cam Newton’s passes have to go somewhere and he is coming off a career year with 24 passing TDs. Arguably Cam should only get better with another year of NFL experience, while Cotchery comes off a career-best 10 TD season last year with Pittsburgh. Cotchery isn’t going to win you any fantasy football leagues mind you, but he’s plenty fine depth for bye weeks and he won’t cost you much. 

You might be tempted to put DeAngelo Williams higher than this – don’t be. Williams is now a 31-year-old back with very limited upside. Williams goes as the 107th pick on average which is far too high if you ask me. Aside from busting the occasional and unpredictable long one every five games or so, Williams is almost a nonfactor in the red zone. In the past two seasons, Williams has carried the ball just one time inside the 3-yard-line. 


Looking for a super sleeper? The Panthers have one in TE Brandon Williams. First the upside – Williams has big-time athletic ability and looks the part. He is a former basketball player and that recipe has paid off before, even with players who had limited football experience in college (i.e., Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham). Williams played little football in college with just two catches as he was forced to stop playing in 2011 because of spinal stenosis. Williams has looked promising in OTAs and in Week 1 of pre-season he caught 3 balls for 50 yards and a score. His playing time is likely limited unless the Panthers decide to play more 2-TE sets (could happen) but he would be a high-end waiver wire pick-up if Greg Olsen were to miss time. 


Jason Avant looks locked in as the team’s #3 WR but your fantasy team is in bad shape if you have to start Avant under any circumstance. Over his eight years in the NFL, Avant averages 37 receptions and 456 yards per season, with a career-high 3 TDs in 2009 and Avant has just 12 total TDs in eight years on 297 receptions. Speaking of lack of play-making ability, here’s a sad stat – over Avant’s career he has 297 career receptions and just two of them have gone for 40+ yards. 

I would like to add RB Kenjon Barner to the super sleeper list as he is super electric and could excel in the receiving game. However, the Carolina backfield is just too crowded and the workload isn’t there yet. However, if there is an injury to Jonathan Stewart (and it is certainly hard to imagine him playing 16 games given his track record) or to DeAngelo Williams then Barner will likely quickly get on the fantasy radar. 

If there is an injury to either Kelvin Benjamin or Jerricho Cotchery, Tavarres King likely would suddenly find himself starting in the NFL. King could be a nice deep threat for the Panthers and he has fantastic stop and start moves which he used effectively to beat defenders deep in college at Georgia – on 42 receptions in 2012, King averaged 22.6 YPC as a senior (ranking #1 in the SEC and #3 in the NCAA that season). 

In TD-heavy formats, RB Mike Tolbert has some value as he’s scored 12 TDs over the last year but who knows when those scores will occur and Tolbert won’t contribute much in terms of yards (Tolbert has averaged just 31 YPG since signing with Carolina prior to the 2012 season). Use your roster spots for guys with more upside. 

I have to admit I have a soft spot for Tiquan Underwood. You have to like an overachiever hard worker, and one with a great attitude. After getting the Patriots logo carved into the back of his hair, Underwood was cut by Bill Belichick literally the day before the Super Bowl in the 2011 season. Despite what had to be a tremendous disappointment, Underwood to his credit said the following day, “The NFL is a business, and I respect coach (Bill) Belichick a lot because he is going to do what he needs to win that game.” Underwood is worth monitoring however as he is the only receiver on the Panthers team with 4.4 speed and he started the first 10 games of his NFL career last year opposite Vincent Jackson in Tampa. 


The Panther schedule is loaded with fireworks for the 2014 season for sure. Perhaps the highlight will come in Week 4 as the team will travel to Baltimore and square off against former Panther Steve Smith. The Panthers are slated for three prime-time games, at home against the Steelers on Sunday Night in Week 3, again at home in Week 9 in what will be a night super-charged facing the Saints, and then again the following week in Week 10 as they will go to Philadelphia to square off against the Eagles. There are many other interesting match-ups as well this year - against the Lions, Seahawks, Packers, Vikings, Bengals and Browns, not to mention the always exciting AFC South games. It looks to be an exciting season on the docket.  


I hate to call for a down season from last year’s remarkable 12-4 run, but I am slotting the Panthers at 10-6, and honestly that feels a little aggressive given a somewhat daunting-looking schedule. I’ll predict the Panthers start hot at 3-0, but that includes wins against Pittsburgh and Detroit (but home games). They then lose at Baltimore, rebound to win at home against the Bears, before succumbing to a 3-game losing streak at Cincinnati, at Green Bay and versus the Seahawks. Going to Philadelphia is a tough challenge too. That puts them at 6-5 at the BYE. I have them winning 4 of their last 5 (this would include however sweeping the Falcons) and getting them to 10-6 on the season. We shall see, but it would be great to see Cam win his first playoff game this year and who knows, anything can happen once in the playoffs.  


Burgandy said...

Benjamin looks legit man. He's been knocked for how "raw" he is, but it doesn't matter how "raw" you are when you are just flat out better than those around you. He's going to be a beast.