2018 Team Preview: Carolina Panthers

Editor’s note: This article is part of our Team Preview series as our staff covers all 32 teams entering the 2018-2019 season. Check out every team’s preview here.

For better or worse (most likely worse), the Panthers offensive line looks very different from last season. All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell has moved south and will now be protecting Blake “do what he gotta do” Bortles. Last season’s starting right tackle Daryl Williams has torn his MCL, Norwell replacement Amini Silatolu tore his meniscus, and Matt Kalil has had arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Thankfully not everything has gone wrong this preseason for the Panthers. First round pick D.J. Moore has shown off his speed, throttling over 100 mph through a work zone just outside Charlotte. In all seriousness though, Moore has looked pretty solid in the downs he’s played, and some NFL analysts have compared him to a young Steve Smith Sr.  With tonight’s game acting as the dress rehearsal for the starters, let’s transition to the outlook on the most fantasy relevant cats in Charlotte.

Cam Newton (QB1)

Looking at quarterback projected point totals seems to tell me that there isn’t a huge difference between the QB1 and QB10. In fact, the point differential between them is the same as that of last seasons RB1 and RB2 point gap. Why not be the last person to take a QB off the board if the intra-position point gap is more drastic elsewhere? If fantasy football were roto scoring, this would be a perfectly sound rationale. Since it’s played in weekly matchups, I thought it would be beneficial to dive into the weekly game logs of this year’s preseason top 24 quarterbacks over the past four seasons. From here I determined what an average point total was for a QB1, and then took the standard deviation of those game logs to determine a range of QB1 outcomes you can expect about 70% of the time. The results are:
Average: 19.53
Range: 15.84-23.46
Now, onto Cam.
The Bad: Newton has finished below 15.84 points in 44% of his games played, while only finishing above 23.46 points in 26% of them. By comparison, Kirk Cousins, a player you can get at a three round discount to Cam, finished below 15.84 points 39% of the time, and finished above 23.46 in 29% of his games.
The Good: When Cam is playing above the “ceiling” of this QB1 range, he’s balled out. In 26% of his games played, Newton has scored an average of 32.49 points. That’s 4.2 more points per game than Cousins in the games he’s exceeded the same “ceiling.” In fact, it’s better than any QB aside from DeShaun Watson, who only has the higher average because of a limited sample size.
Verdict: If you like safety, Cam is not the fantasy QB for you. Will he bust in half of the games like he did last season? Probably not, especially with Greg Olsen back on the field, but if you’re investing in something as high beta as Newton, you need to accept the inherit risk associated with it.

Christian McCaffrey (RB1)

Ah, the least mutually agreed upon RB1 heading into this season. Whether you believe the hype that this can be a breakout year for CMC or that he’s going to be the biggest bust in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, it’s important to view the arguments from both sides when to formulate your own opinion.
The Bad: Last season, McCaffrey only averaged 3.72 yards per carry. This was the lowest among all RB1s, and 0.16 YPC less than the second lowest. There was an article published on The Athletic discussing whether a running back with a BMI under 29 like McCaffrey can shoulder the large workload both Norv Turner and Ron Rivera have suggested he’ll receive. If it’s the best fit for his scheme, Turner won’t be shy about splitting the backfield with C.J. Anderson, as is evidenced by what the 2014 Vikings run share looked like.
The Good: Of the top ten PPR RBs from last season, eight of them required 100 more carries than CMC to achieve RB1 status. The only one that did not was Alvin Kamara. McCaffrey also received over 100 passing targets last season, and he had a catch rate of 71%, which ranks him 5th on the list of players who were targeted 100+ times. In four of the last five seasons Turner acted as offensive coordinator (omitting the 2015 Vikings), he targeted the running back on 22.26% of the team’s pass attempts.
Verdict: Surely McCaffrey won’t receive the 25 touches per game his OC and head coach have stated as “realistic” goals for this season, but if he ups his workload to 16-20 per game, he should be in line for 175 rushing attempts and 80-ish catches. Even with a reduction in yards per catch and a five touchdown season, that would put him at 223 points, which is only 6 points shy of last year’s total. That’s a pretty safe floor, and there’s legitimate top 5 RB upside.

Devin Funchess (WR3/FLEX)

The Good: There’s no more Kelvin Benjamin in Carolina, so Funchess should receive the most targets among Panther wide receivers as the de facto #1 on the roster. He’s also a prime example of the phrase that player development/growth is not linear, as he took a step back in 2016 before taking a huge leap forward last season. If he’s able to maintain or improve upon the 56.8% catch rate he had last season, the sheer volume alone should supplant him as a back end WR2.
The Bad
: In the 9 games Greg Olsen was sidelined with his foot injury last season, Funchess averaged 7.78 targets per game. In the 7 games where Olsen was on the field, he averaged 5.86 targets per game. If you want to play the “this game is an outlier, and therefore we shouldn’t count it” game, then the game on 11/26 where Funchess saw a career high 12 targets should not count, which means his average targets seen when Olsen was on the field is more likely to be closer to 4.83.  Either way, the return of has a negative effect on Funchess’ target share by at least two targets per game. When you take his stats from 2017 and reduce his reception and yardage total to reflect the decrease in targets, touchdown total unaffected, he would have slotted between Cooper Kupp and Jermaine Kearse. There’s also fear that rookie D.J. Moore will cut into his targets, thus dropping Funchess even further among the WR group.
Verdict: I doubt he’ll be as good as he was last year, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a viable option. There’s some skepticism about how productive both Olsen and Moore will be this season, and if that proves true there’s potential for Funchess to be a top 25 WR like he was last season. Err on the side of caution though, as he’s more TD dependent than most WR2’s from last season.

Greg Olsen (TE1)

The Bad: Olsen is heading into his age 33 season, and prior to 2017 he had not missed a game since 2007. That’s a lot of mileage on a skill position player, and when paired with potential lingering foot issues after last season, we could be seeing a dip in explosiveness and overall efficiency. Olsen’s 2016 season also saw a career low for touchdowns, and if that persists into the upcoming year it would really cap his upside.
The Good: If being in Norv Turner’s offense is good for McCaffrey’s target share, than it’s even better for Olsen’s, as Tight Ends have been targeted 23.65% of the time in the last five seasons Turner acted as offensive coordinator. Olsen’s career catch rate is sitting at 61.50%, so if he sees 120 targets he’ll provide 73 points solely from volume. From 2014-2016, Olsen averaged 80 catches, 1,061 yards, and 5 TDs.
Verdict: It seems as if the projections for Olsen are baking in a decline due to a combination of age and lingering injury effects, but the expected decline seems a bit too precipitous. Even with a consensus 25% decline in production from his 2014-2016 averages, Olsen still slots in as the TE5.

 

In my time playing fantasy football, I’ve found that calling somebody an RB1 or a WR2 has too wide of a range of outcomes for it to mean a lot. Tiers where there’s a distinct production drop off is a much more descriptive way to approach positional rankings. Within a tier it’s valid to make the argument for taking one guy over the other, even if the consensus disagrees. Take this year’s running back crop for example: Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley are the only two RBs that should be taken #1. After that, David Johnson is the only running back that should be considered. The consensus would say to take Zeke Elliott next, but looking at the potential range of outcomes and their likelihoods, Kamara isn’t an egregious pick as the fourth RB off the board. I’m not going to post the entirety of my player tiers in this post, but here’s where the fantasy relevant Panthers players slot into my positional tiers.

PLAYER

TIER

BEST CASE

WORST CASE

Cam Newton 4 1 7
Drew Brees Aaron Rodgers Alex Smith
Matt Ryan
Jared Goff
Philip Rivers
Christian McCaffrey 4 3 6
Melvin Gordon
Kareem Hunt
Saquon Barkley
Dalvin Cook
Leonard Fournette
Ezekiel Elliott
Alvin Kamara
Jordan Howard
Joe Mixon
Devin Funchess 10 7 13
Jamison Crowder Josh Gordon
Allen Robinson
Marvin Jones
Brandin Cooks
Michael Crabtree
Sterling Shepard
Devante Parker
Mohamed Sanu
Greg Olsen 3 2 5
Evan Engram
Delanie Walker
Zach Ertz Jack Doyle
Jordan Reed
Alex Drennan

Cautiously optimistic Giants and Notre Dame fan (although the optimism for ND Football is waning).

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