2020 Fantasy Preview: Carolina Panthers
The beginning of last season for the Panthers was another typical year in Carolina. Ron Rivera was the head coach and Cam Newton was the starting quarterback. They had been together for their entire careers and that didn’t look like it was changing. Until it did.
Now the Panthers are the only team in the NFL with a new head coach (Matt Rhule), offensive coordinator (Joe Brady), defensive coordinator (Phil Snow), and starting quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater). Additionally, the defense lost long time leader Luke Keuchly and cornerback James Bradberry, arguably the two best defenders on the team. In the most turbulent offseason in NFL history, the Panthers may have it the worst.
Sometimes if you look hard enough though, you can find benefits in what appears to be instability. New offensive coordinator Joe Brady just led one of, if not the best, all-time offenses in NCAA history. Brady runs a scheme that stems from Saints coach Sean Payton’s system, who just so happened to coach Bridgewater for the last two seasons. So let’s look closely because there is plenty to like for fantasy football purposes in Carolina this year.
ADP: 166.5, QB25
Last season, Teddy Bridgewater returned to the Saints to back up Drew Brees. It turned out to be a smart decision, as Brees injured his thumb on his throwing hand during the season. This gave Bridgewater the stage to let the other teams in the league see what he still had. Bridgewater led the Saints to a 5-0 record in his starts and earned himself a nice new contract and starting job with the Panthers.
Compared to last year’s Panthers starter Kyle Allen, Bridgewater is a massive upgrade. Last year Allen ranked 29th in QBR, 32nd in DVOA (per Football Outsiders), and 32nd in ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt, one of the strongest passing metrics). Basically, one of the worst starters in the NFL. Bridgewater was 9th in DVOA and 12th in ANY/A (he didn’t qualify for QBR for the season). NFL NextGen Stats has a statistic called Competition Percentage over Expectation, which determines what a quarterback’s completion percentage should have been, then takes what they actually had and finds the difference. Allen was 24th and Bridgewater was 13th. I can keep doing this, but I think you see how much more Bridgewater brings to the Panthers offense.
Now, most of you will try to say that Bridgewater was in an excellent situation in New Orleans and checked the ball down a ton. But, don’t both of those things apply here as well (and is that a bad thing)? Rhule was particular in who he wanted as his offensive coordinator. Hiring Brady and pairing him with Bridgewater was no accident. There will be plenty of scheme crossover and it highlights Bridgewater’s strengths. Checking the ball down to receivers like Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Ian Thomas is exactly what this offense should be doing. They are collectively one of the best groups of pass-catchers for their yards after catch ability. Brady will put Bridgewater in favorable situations/matchups and allow Bridgewater to do the rest.
To top it all off, the Panthers defense projects to be one of the worst in the NFL. They spent every draft pick they had this year on defense but that won’t make a major difference for this season. This sets up the Panthers to be in pass-heavy situations quite often this season, especially with playing the rest of the NFC South twice. These should be fruitful passing situations as the Panthers have the 12th easiest schedule for passing defenses (per Sharp Football Analysis). Bridgewater is in a prime position to outkick his QB25 ADP (per FantasyData) and is a smart late-round QB selection.
Teddy seamlessly fits into Brady’s offensive scheme finding easily completions to his strong YAC receivers. The NFC South proves to be as tough as many think and the Panthers end up playing catch-up most of the season allowing Bridgewater to rack up the fantasy points.
There is too much change from last season to this season for Carolina to overcome in one extremely difficult offseason. Rhule’s plan begins to take shape but it doesn’t translate the fantasy points. Bridgewater ends the season as a low-end QB2.
2020 Projection: 580 attempts, 389 competitions, 3,650 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 55 rushes, 76 yards, 1 touchdown, 4 fumbles.
ADP: 1.3, RB1
I’m not really sure where to begin or if I even need to write this section. You all know everything about Christian McCaffrey aka CMC aka Dairy Sanders aka Mr. 1.01. As that last nickname that I totally didn’t just make up now says, McCaffrey is the automatic first pick in every upcoming draft this summer (unless it’s Superflex and even then he has a case). He became the third player ever to record 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. He played for 93% of the Panthers offensive snaps and handled 88.2% of their running back touches. He is the definition of a true do it all bell-cow running back. He outscored the RB2 in PPR scoring last year by a whopping 8.7 points per game. Over a touchdown per game!
McCaffrey managed these accomplishments with the toughest schedule for a running back last year and a middling offensive line. Unfortunately, these factors won’t change much for this season. The Panthers offensive line ranked 17th in adjusted line yards (per Football Outsiders). This measures how much an offensive line contributes to rushing yardage. The Panthers line will have some new starters but they are question marks. They traded star guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for left tackle Russel Okung, who has some injury concerns and Turner’s replacement at guard is up in the air. Per Sharp Football Analysis, the Panthers face the 10th toughest schedule for rushing defenses. Neither of these hurt McCaffrey all too much last year and this is technically an easier schedule.
McCaffrey’s open field talent (30 broken tackles last season) and receiving workload (over 100 targets the last two seasons) help offset any potential concerns. Since McCaffrey entered the NFL, he has the third-most receptions. That’s for the entire NFL, not just for running backs. Only Michael Thomas and Deandre Hopkins have more. Yes, that is real. He has more receptions than every other great receiver you can think of. That won’t be slowing down under Brady. Last year, Brady’s offense threw heavily to running backs and not just for check downs. LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire had 55 receptions, which was the most for an SEC running back in nearly 20 years. He’s extremely effective with his receptions as well. McCaffrey’s yard per route run (one of the most predictive receiving statistics) last season was 1.88, which was ninth among running backs. He managed that with Allen at quarterback. Now lets picture all this with Bridgewater at quarterback, who is no stranger to throwing to an efficient receiving back (hello Alvin Kamara).
The only possible issue with McCaffrey’s outlook for 2020 is touchdown regression. He managed to hit paydirt 19 times last year. Carolina struggled to score the ball through the air which boosted McCaffrey’s rushing touchdowns. They will likely come down a bit this year, but that’s not enough to move him off the 1.01. Without any touchdowns last year, he still would have been the highest-scoring RB in PPR. Also, McCaffrey can score more receiving touchdowns to offset any loss in rushing touchdowns.
McCaffrey becomes the first player to ever have a back to back 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards season. Bridgewater and McCaffrey find chemistry early on and Bridgewater peppers him with tons of targets on CMC’s way to another RB1 finish.
The Panthers’ offense struggles to come together this season and the revamped offensive line actually plays worse than last season. McCaffrey still manages a bunch of receptions but his touchdowns and rushing yardage drop a bit. He still manages to be a top 10 RB so it doesn’t totally tank your season.
2020 Projection: 267 rushing attempts, 1,265 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 106 receptions, 890 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns, 2 fumbles.
ADP: 37.1, WR14
D.J. Moore had his second-year break out last season and not enough people are talking about it. Moore had 135 targets (10th most in the NFL), 87 receptions, 1175 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. This was as a 22-year-old with Allen as his QB. The advanced metrics also paint a pretty picture for Moore. His yards per route run was 2.4 per FantasyData (16th among wide receivers), he earned 1499 air yards per (12th in the NFL), and he had a WOPR of 0.56 per AirYards.com (18th in the NFL). WOPR, or weighted opportunity rating, measures a combination of a player’s target share and share of the air yards in an offense. It is a great statistic for measuring how a receiver performed and it has a high year over year correlation. Now, I’ll say this again: he did this with Kyle Allen!
Having new offensive coordinator Joe Brady will also be an advantage for Moore this season. Brady was effective at spreading out the offense and letting his primary receivers go to work. Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase each posted over 1,500 receiving yards last year for LSU. This was because of Brady’s ability to work with his player’s strengths and put them in a position to succeed. Moore will likely be playing a similar role that Michael Thomas and Jefferson played in this offense. Running routes in the short and intermediate areas of the field (with a good amount out of the slot) to give Bridgewater easy completions. Moore would thrive in this role for two reasons. First, he has great hands. Moore’s true catch rate was 13th in the NFL and he is strong in contested catches, converting over 55% of them per FantasyData. Secondly, he can utilize his incredible ability to generate yards after the catch. Moore had a 0.9 YAC above expectation, which was 8th among qualifying wide receivers (per NFL NextGen Stats). Moore’s new partnership with Bridgewater and his role in the offense are seamless fits for real football and fake football.
As discussed in the Bridgewater breakdown, the Panthers offense faces the 12th easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses in 2020. The Panthers’ own weak defense and playing against stronger NFC South teams twice will put the Panthers in a ton of passing situations. These factors in concert with Moore’s new role make him an easy buy at his WR14 ADP (per FantasyData).
Moore is the beneficiary of a quarterback upgrade, a smart scheme for his skill set, and constantly playing from behind to become a no-doubt WR1 by the end of the season.
The Panthers’ offense struggles to adapt to Brady’s play style. Bridgewater and Moore can’t seem to create the connection needed to sustain Moore enough for his price tag. Moore ends up as a low-end WR2.
2020 Projection: 137 targets, 89 receptions, 1225 yards, 7 touchdowns.
ADP: 176, WR66
Curtis Samuel bore the brunt of Allen’s inability to be a functional quarterback last season. Samuel led the NFL in unrealized air yards but not because he couldn’t catch. Allen had the worst completion percentage in the NFL on deep passes last season (per Football Outsiders). Allen completed just 13 of 41 deep pass attempts, or 31.7. That percentage is actually somehow propped up by Allen’s deep passes traveling 20-31 yards, which was a respectable 55%. Allen managed to go 2 for 21 on passes traveling 31+ yards last season. Good for 9.5%! That is incredibly bad and a long-winded way to say how badly Samuel was treated last year. This lack of accuracy dropped Samuel’s yards per route run to a lowly 1.16 (75th among wide receivers per Fantasy Data). Bridgewater isn’t known for his deep ball prowess, but he will likely be much better than Allen last season (as you can’t do much worse).
Samuel really was a bit better last year than he is getting credit for. He was 14th in the NFL in average target separation, showing that he can get past defenders. His ability to evade tackles and get away from defenders is probably his defining trait. He was used as a hybrid RB/WR at Ohio State and the beginning of his NFL career. He may be headed to something similar this year after the failed experiment as a deep threat (not really his fault) and the signing of Robby Anderson. Samuel’s best role is likely some time in the slot, some end-around rushes, and a few deep shots mixed in. Samuel is being drafted as the WR66 and that generally makes sense with his inefficient prior season and lack of clarity on his role going forward. But… there is one way this really pays off. If McCaffrey (god forbid) got injured or had to miss time due to COVID-19, would anyone be surprised if Samuel ended up as the primary running back? His skillset would fit into McCaffrey’s role and Reggie Bonnafon isn’t the same level of football player as Samuel. So while I pray that this does not happen, it is something to be considered later in your drafts.
Samuel is able to carve out a better role in Brady’s offense than being solely a deep threat and Bridgewater’s accuracy raises Samuel’s floor. Samuel pays off with WR2 weeks until McCaffrey gets injured and Samuel becomes a must-start.
The new coaching staff prefers the newly signed Anderson, and Samuel gets demoted to the third wide receiver on the depth chart. Bridgewater never ends up trusting Samuel and he becomes a wasted draft pick and waiver-wire fodder.
2020 Projection: 82 targets, 56 receptions, 640 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns, 74 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown.
ADP: 167.3, WR64
Robby Anderson left the Jets this offseason to play under his former college coach Matt Rhule again. It was an understandable decision for personal reasons, but an odd fit for football. While Bridgewater is an accurate passer and an upgrade from Sam Darnold (at his current development stage), Anderson is a true deep threat receiver (12th highest aDOT for WRs with at least 50 targets) that doesn’t mesh well with Bridgewater’s strengths. Anderson may fall into the decoy/clear out receiver to let McCaffrey, Moore, Ian Thomas, and even Samuel have space underneath.
If Bridgewater throws deep more often than the past, Anderson can capitalize. The main issue is that we won’t know when those weeks are coming (if they are). Anderson has his spike weeks, similarly to other deep threat receivers. It makes it difficult to thrust him into your lineup. With this tendency and his new quarterback, I am a bit bearish on Anderson this year. You will have the choice between Samuel and Anderson late in drafts and I would lean towards Samuel because he has more paths to success.
Matt Rhule knows how to use Anderson best and Anderson is able to become a more complete receiver. Bridgewater is coaxed to take more deep shots under Brady, which pays off for Anderson. Anderson ends up as a solid WR2, stemming from multiple spike weeks.
Anderson is primarily used as a decoy in the offense to take the safeties away from the primary targets. Anderson catches the random deep ball, but it never amounts to much fantasy production. Anderson ends the season as a low-end WR3 or WR4.
2020 Projection: 74 targets, 51 receptions, 625 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns.
ADP: 308, TE28
Ian Thomas finally is getting his chance to be the starting tight end for the Panthers. When Greg Olsen was injured for parts of the past two seasons, Thomas started and had 5 games as a TE1. For a rookie and sophomore tight end to produce that well without consistent playing time is impressive.
Thomas is also another strong fit for the new offense and quarterback. Thomas has a 71st percentile size-adjusted speed score (per PlayerProfiler) which is one of the most important metrics for finding a breakout tight end. Thomas is able to move well for a tight end which could allow for similar YAC production we have been looking for in these Panthers receivers. It is difficult to project a meaning full role in this offense for Thomas, but he’s an intriguing option if you wait (like really wait) at tight end in your draft.
Thomas is able to break into the Panthers receiving hierarchy behind Samuel, allowing him to see a larger amount of targets than expected. Thomas is able to replicate his form without Olsen and is a low-end TE1 for the season.
Thomas never really breaks into the new offense and is used more for his blocking ability. He sees CMC, Moore, Samuel, and Anderson all work ahead of him in the offense, leaving few target opportunities left over. He stays as the TE3 that he’s being drafted as.
2020 Projection: 67 targets, 43 receptions, 520 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns.
Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)