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2017 NFL Fantasy Preview: Carolina Panthers

This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.

Last year the Panthers had their worst season in the Cam Newton era: 6-10, last in division. The team and Newton were bound to regress from their 2015 form — the Panthers weren’t likely to go 15-1 again, and Newton wasn’t likely to account for 45 touchdowns passing and rushing — but no one expected the pendulum to swing so far in the opposite direction. While the Panthers dealt with injuries across the team — Luke Kuechly (concussion) and Michael Oher (concussion), for instance — the injuries that mattered most to the team were those to Newton, who suffered a concussion in Week 4 and then torn rotator cuff in Week 14. For Newton and the Panthers, 2017 is about turning the clock back to 2015.

Play-Calling Tendencies

Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera was a linebacker with the Bears of the ’80s and early ’90s before eventually transitioning to coaching. After two years (1997-98) as a quality control coach for the Bears, Rivera spent a half-decade (1999-2003) with the Eagles as the linebackers coach before returning to Chicago, where he served as defensive coordinator for three seasons (2004-06). In his final season as DC, the Bears defense was fifth in yards, third in points, and first in takeaways. Naturally, the Bears declined to renew his contract following their Super Bowl loss (and have won zero playoff games since then).

Hired by the Chargers after the Bears let him go, Rivera served as linebackers coach in San Diego for a year (2007) before being promoted to DC, a position he held for three years (2008-10). In his final season in San Diego, the Chargers defense was first in yards allowed. After his success with the Bears and Chargers, Rivera was hired in January 2011 by the Panthers, who drafted Newton with the No. 1 overall pick just a few months later.

Given his defensive background, when it comes to play-calling Rivera has tended to defer to his offensive coordinators — first Rob Chudzinski (2011-12) and then Mike Shula (2013-present) — but as the head coach Rivera clearly has decision-making authority on when the team punts, kicks, or runs an offensive play on fourth down. In the first 34 games of his coaching tenure, Rivera made high-leverage decisions like a guy afraid to lose, calling the second-fewest fourth-and-short plays in that time. Naturally, the Panthers were 2-14 in games decided by less than a touchdown: Scared money don’t make no money.

After going 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons, Rivera was on the cusp of being fired — especially when his conservative tendencies contributed to the team’s 0-2 start in 2013. And then something changed: In Week 3, in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Rivera went for it on fourth-and-1 at the opponent’s two-yard line. Result: Touchdown. And thus the legend of Riverboat Ron was born.

Although the Panthers don’t go for it on fourth down nearly as often as Rivera’s @RiverboatRonHC Twitter handle might suggest, they have still been strong on fourth down over the last four years compared to the league:

  • 2016: 17 attempts (tied for 11th), 64.7 percent conversion rate (8th)
  • 2015:  10 (T-28th), 60.0 percent (T-4th)
  • 2014: 10 (T-27th), 60.0 percent (T-3rd)
  • 2013: 13 (T-18th), 76.9 percent (3rd)

Riverboat success notwithstanding, the Panthers are nevertheless still a conservative team. Over the last six years, not once have they been outside the top 12 in rushing yardage or inside the top 12 in passing yardage. Not once have they been outside the top 10 in run/pass ratio. Not once have they been inside the top 10 in neutral pace. Only once have they been in the top 10 in total offensive yardage — in Cam’s first season, when Shula was the quarterbacks coach under Chud. In his eight seasons as a coordinator (1996-99 with the Buccaneers, 2013-16 with Panthers), only once has Shula coordinated an offense in the top 12 in yardage and scoring: 2015, which looks like an outlier within the context of the last six years.

With Rivera and Shula, the Panthers tend to run a medium-paced ball-control run-heavy low-scoring offense supported by a defense that is usually in the top 10. The team just drafted a first-round running back and a second-round wide receiver who played running back in college. There’s no reason to expect the Panthers to be anything other than what they’ve been the past six years: A team that can but usually doesn’t finish in the top 10 in scoring.

2017 Roster

Here are the roster moves that general manager David Gettleman made before getting fired and being replaced by the guy (Marty Hurney) he replaced four years earlier:

  • QB: Cam Newton
  • RB: Jonathan Stewart/Fozzy Whittaker –> Stewart/Christian McCaffrey
  • FB: Mike Tolbert –> Darrel Young
  • WR: Kelvin Benjamin
  • WR: Devin Funchess
  • WR: Ted Ginn Jr./Corey Brown –> Curtis Samuel
  • TE: Greg Olsen
  • LT: Michael Oher/Mike Remmers –> Matt Kalil
  • LG: Andrew Norwell
  • C: Ryan Kalil/Gino Gradkowski/Tyler Larsen –> Ryan Kalil
  • RG: Trai Turner
  • RT: Mike Remmers/Daryl Williams –> Williams/Taylor Moton

In seemingly every piece I say that I don’t highlight fullbacks, but the arrival of Young and departure of Tolbert might be significant. A former two-time All-Pro, Tolbert made a name for himself from 2010 to 2013, when he averaged 717.5 yards and 8.8 touchdowns from scrimmage as well as 33.3 receptions per year. Since then, however, he’s gotten by largely on reputation. He’s a great pass blocker — last year he had a 98.1 pass blocking efficiency rating (Pro Football Focus) — but it’s possible that Young is the better run blocker. Last year Young was out of football, but prior to that he was a good lead blocker for Alfred Morris in Washington. Tolbert last season received a poor 41.0 overall PFF grade.

While Ginn’s big-play explosiveness will be missed — he scored 14 touchdowns for the Panthers over the last two seasons — Whittaker and Brown aren’t even replacement-level players. The Panthers have significantly upgraded the running back and receiver positions with the additions of McCaffrey and Samuel.

Something of an underwhelmer for most of his career, Oher was a stabilizing presence as Newton’s blindside protector in 2015, but in 2016 his season was cut short with a concussion. With Oher out, Remmers (now with the Vikings) moved to left tackle and Williams filled in at right tackle. Both of them were exposed, and Turner struggled next to Williams, especially after Ryan Kalil suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Oher’s absence was significant last year. Still in the league’s concussion protocol, he was just recently released via a failed physical (after he spoke out against the team’s dismissal of Gettleman). Matt Kalil — who has sub-50.0 PFF grades in two of the last three seasons — enters training camp as the new starting left tackle, having signed a five-year, $55.5 million deal with $25 million guaranteed. I guess that’s the going rate for five mostly disappointing seasons in Minnesota.

There’s no guarantee that Matt Kalil will be better this year than Remmers was in 2016 or that Williams will improve upon last year’s 64.6 PFF pass-blocking grade. In terms of his offensive line, Newton’s 2017 could be similar to his 2016.

On defense, longtime coordinator Sean McDermott is gone and replacing him is someone who claims to be named “Steve Wilks.” A defensive backs coach for Rivera in Chicago, San Diego, and Carolina, Wilks is familiar with Rivera’s 4-3 scheme. Theoretically, the transition to Wilks should be smooth, as he’s been the team’s assistant HC for the last two years. Still, the last time he was a defensive play-caller was in 2002 — for East Tennessee State. Even though this unit has experienced little turnover, it is being coordinated by a guy with no NFL play-calling experience:

  • DE: Charles Johnson
  • DT: Kawann Short
  • DT: Star Lotulelei
  • DE: Kony Ealy/Mario Addison –> Addison/Julius Peppers
  • OLB: Thomas Davis
  • MLB: Luke Kuechly/A.J. Klein –> Kuechly
  • OLB: Shaq Thompson
  • CB: James Bradberry
  • CB: Daryl Worley
  • SCB: Leonard Johnson –> Captain Munnerlyn
  • SS: Kurt Coleman –> Mike Adams
  • FS: Tre Boston –> Coleman

Traded to the Patriots is Ealy, who (Super Bowl 50 aside) has uninspired in his three-year career. With Addison seeing more snaps and Peppers returning to Carolina, the Panthers won’t miss Ealy and his 2016 PFF grade of 54.8.

Klein was just a replacement-level backup in Carolina, but he saw heavy snaps the last two seasons, as Kuechly has missed nine games due to concussions. Behind Kuechly now are the special teamer Ben Jacobs and undrafted rookie Ben Boulware. If Kuechly misses any time this year, the Panthers defense could be in trouble.

Johnson followed McDermott to Buffalo, and in his place is the veteran free agent Munnerlyn, who spent the first five years (2009-13) of his career with Carolina. With experience in the slot and this defense, Munnerlyn is a good addition to the unit.

A middling player with below-average coverage skills, Boston was cut in May after the Panthers signed Adams, a ball-hawking veteran who was sixth in the league with 12 interceptions over the last three years. The addition of Adams allows Coleman to shift back to free safety, where he had seven interceptions for the Panthers in 2015.

As long as the defense doesn’t suffer a string of injuries, it should be better than it was last year. When the season starts, be sure to keep an eye on our NFL Matchups Dashboard as well as our NFL News feed to see how these units take shape.

Notable Players

With the exception of the line, this offense is in contention to be the most talented of the Newton era.

Cam Newton, QB

Newton was destined for regression last year after hitting career-high marks with a 7.1 percent touchdown rate and 8.3 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) in his 2015 MVP campaign. His regression, however, was extreme, as he had career lows with a 3.7 percent touchdown rate and 6.4 AY/A. Why did Newton regress so badly? Because of his head injury in Week 4 he was treated with kid gloves as a runner, setting a career-low mark with 90 rushing attempts. And because of his shoulder injury in Week 14 Newton had a career-worst 52.9 percent completion rate: In the final four games of the season Newton completed a meager 48.2 percent of his passes.

Really, though, Newton was seemingly sabotaged by injuries to his offensive line. Excluding his injury-shortened Week 4 outing against the Falcons, here’s how Newton did in relation to the status of his offensive line (per our Trends tool):

  • With all five starters: 24.37 DraftKings points per game (PPG), +3.92 Plus/Minus, 66.7 percent Consistency Rating
  • Without Oher: 17.33 PPG, -1.25, 36.4 percent
  • Without Oher and Kalil: 16.36 PPG, -1.70, 33.3 percent

With the additions of McCaffrey and Samuel, the Panthers are expected to employ a passing game that calls for quicker, shorter attempts, which should help to hide the offensive line — but if the two-time All-Pro Ryan Kalil suffers an injury or his younger brother fails to do a passable 2015 Blindside impersonation, Newton’s production will likely stay depressed.

If he (and his offensive line) can stay healthy, Newton should be a top fantasy quarterback — unless Rivera follows through on his ‘threat’ to limit Newton’s carries. In his four healthy seasons, Newton has been a top-five fantasy quarterback each year. In his two injury-marred campaigns, Newton has still been a QB2 with some week-winning performances. He represents good value at his 92.9 average draft position (ADP) in DRAFT best ball leagues and is a strong pivot play on the quarterbacks being selected two to three rounds ahead of him.

That said, given that the Panthers have a run-heavy offense and that Newton has passed for 4,000 yards only once in his career, he’s drawing dead at +6,600 to lead the league in passing yards. He’s more intriguing at +2,500 to win the MVP. Right now there are nine players in the prop markets with higher odds to win, but only seven teams have higher odds than the Panthers to win the Super Bowl. If he’s good enough to lead his team back to the big game, he has a good chance of picking up a second MVP award along the way.

Christian McCaffrey, RB

About a month ago, McCaffrey’s DRAFT ADP was 37.5. Now it’s 43.4. It’s still too high (as I argue in my piece on the top 100 NFL players). There aren’t many backs similar to McCaffrey, but on the basis of his college production, size (5’11” and 202 lbs.), athleticism (4.48-second 40, 6.57-second three-cone), age (21), and draft pedigree (eighth overall), McCaffrey is most comparable (as a prospect) to 2009 LeSean McCoy — except McCaffrey enters the NFL with more production, athleticism, and draft equity. He has the potential to be a special NFL player. Since the league initiated the 16-game regular season in 1978, there have been 13 backs selected in the first 15 picks of the draft to play as 21-year-old first-year players. Some of them are among the best players in NFL history — Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk, for instance — and as a cohort they rocked out as rookies:

  • 15.1 games played
  • 248.4 carries
  • 1,085.8 yards rushing
  • 8.7 touchdowns rushing
  • 34.5 receptions
  • 320 yards receiving
  • 1.0 touchdown receiving
  • 20.1 touches per game
  • 99.7 scrimmage yards per game
  • 0.7 all-purpose touchdowns per game

Only one of them failed to have an RB1 season at any point in his career. I’m fully aware that McCaffrey is almost certain to be a good NFL player.

But his situation this year sucks.

First of all, he’s with a mobile quarterback in Newton, who has 48 touchdowns rushing in his career. It’s not close to certain that Newton’s going to surrender carries — especially goal-line carries — to a rookie who weighs only 202 lbs. On top of that, Newton tends to run the ball instead of dump it off whenever plays break down. How many targets are you hoping McCaffrey gets this year? The 121 that Reggie Bush got as a rookie? Newton has never given even 100 targets to all of his running backs combined in any season. If McCaffrey gets more than even 80 targets he’ll be in the all-time top five for target-getters among rookie backs. For McCaffrey to be an outlier target hog, Newton will need to be a different quarterback than the one he’s been over the last six years.

And McCaffrey will need to get his action via the air, because he doesn’t seem likely to get workhorse touches via the ground. Stewart is old and not the talent he once was — and he’s a mortal lock to miss at least a few games with a lower-body injury — but he’s still the starter and the backfield’s veteran leader. Over the last three years, the 235-lb. grinder has averaged 211.6 carries per season for 874 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. When Stewart misses time, McCaffrey will have the potential to be a top-five three-down back — but as long as Stew is healthy McCaffrey is likely to struggle to cobble together enough touches to return value at his ADP (barring a massive shift in offensive style).

Jonathan Stewart, RB

The Panthers could’ve released Stewart this offseason as a post-June 1 cut, thereby saving themselves $6.25 million. Instead, they (specifically Gettleman) signed him to a one-year extension, ensuring that he’ll be with the team in 2017. Even if McCaffrey steals a sizable chunk of Stewart’s carries, the high-value attempts are likely to remain with the veteran. Last year the only running backs to score more than J-Stew’s nine touchdowns rushing within the five-yard line were LeGarrette Blount and David Johnson. In each of the last two years Stewart has been one of the league leaders in carries inside the five with 16 (T-5th) and nine (T-8th). Only seven backs have more than Stewart’s 15 touchdowns rushing over the last two seasons. Surprisingly, he’s a near-elite scorer.

Stewart’s 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) last year was downright Jeremy Hill-esque, but it’s somewhat excusable. The offensive line last year was 25th with 3.57 adjusted line YPC (Football Outsiders), and he was still a top-30 back with a 28.8 percent juke rate, 1.2 yards after contact per touch, and 2.0 YPC against stacked fronts (PlayerProfiler). Per Panthers.com, the team’s coaches have “insisted that Stewart’s role will not change.” If that’s the case, he’s significantly undervalued at his 110.3 DRAFT ADP, given that he’s finished each of the last three seasons as an RB2.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR

A big-bodied (6’5″ and 245 lbs.) bruiser who plays the receiver position as if he’s a move tight end perpetually split out wide, Benjamin has had a disappointing beginning to his career. Even though he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in his first season he fell short in comparisons to fellow rookies Odell Beckham, Jr., and Mike Evans (who had two of the best rookie receiving seasons of all time). Tearing his ACL in the 2015 preseason, he missed the entirety of his sophomore year before returning in 2016 with a 63/941/7 campaign on 118 targets.

While all of that seems mediocre, consider how K-Benjy has done in his first two years of NFL action (including playoffs) compared to a ‘mystery receiver’:

  • Benjy (34 games): 8.3 targets per game (TPG), 4.3 receptions per game (RPG), 60.5 YPG, 7.35 yards per target (YPT), 0.53 touchdowns per game (TDPG), 52.5 percent catch rate
  • Mystery (30): 9.0 TPG, 4.7 RPG, 75.2 YPG, 8.36 YPT, 0.50 TDPG, 52.6 percent

The mystery receiver is Evans in his first two seasons (2014-15). Through the first two active years of their careers, Benjamin has basically been an arbitrage Evans with a little more touchdown production and a little less target volume and yardage.

K-Benjy’s never going to be a svelte route-running technician — he was dead last in the NFL last year with just 1.80 yards of separation per route (Next Gen Stats) — but if he can keep his weight under control then he’ll be a screaming discount at his 72.9 DRAFT ADP. Early reports from camp are that he’s “where he needs to be” (per Rivera), which should help him maintain his underrated deep speed: Last year Benjamin was 15th in the league with 718 air yards, and at the 2014 combine he ran a 4.61-second 40 at 240 lbs., good for a 93rd percentile Speed Score. Benjamin has big-play upside.

As a daily fantasy option, Benjamin has historically provided significantly more value as an underdog than a favorite:

  • Favorite (16 games): 13.40 DraftKings PPG, -0.65 Plus/Minus, 25.0 percent Consistency Rating, 9.6 percent ownership rate
  • Dog (16): 13.91, +1.88, 56.3 percent, 2.3 percent

What’s most notable about Benjamin’s Vegas splits is his ownership: Despite being better as a dog on a raw and salary-adjusted basis, he’s had quadruple the ownership when favored. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs.

It’s possible that sharp players will be on Benjamin this season, especially when he’s an underdog. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Panthers each week. If you want to construct Newton-Benjy stacks, do it with our Lineup Builder.

Devin Funchess, WR

What Funchess has going for him is his 202.5 DRAFT ADP, size (6’4″ and 232 lbs.), age (23), NFL draft pedigree (41st overall, 2015), and near-elite 7.4 percent touchdown rate. Of course, Funless is smaller than K-Benjy, slower than K-Benjy (4.70-second 40), and entering his third year, so his original draft position can’t be counted as a factor in his favor anymore (per work done by Nick Giffen at RotoViz), especially since of the team’s three starting receivers he has the lowest draft pedigree. Of the second-round receivers to enter the NFL as 21-year-old rookies, the only ones to have eventual NFL success have been those with strong collegiate production: Allen Robinson, Sidney Rice, Randall Cobb, and Antonio Bryant. All those with mediocre or poor college production have failed. At Michigan, Funchess never had even 750 yards receiving or seven touchdowns receiving in a season. His age and NFL draft position don’t seem to be doing him any favors.

With Ginn and Brown gone Funchess theoretically could get more snaps and targets, but to this point in his career he has been little more than a rotational receiver (44.7 percent of snaps in 2015, 47.4 percent in 2016) with a Sammie Coates-esque 44.6 percent catch rate. Still, last year his 14.1-yard average depth of target was higher than Ginn’s (13.8), and Funchess was 18th at the position with a 77.8 percent catch rate. His 23.7 percent red zone target share was 19th. Almost no one at his ADP has his touchdown potential, so he warrants speculative exposure — but over the last two years Funchess has been out-snapped by Ginn, Brown, and even second tight end Ed Dickson. That doesn’t breed confidence.

Curtis Samuel, WR

It’s easy to say that Samuel is Percy Harvin v.2.0, but it’s easy to say because it’s true — and not just because both played for Urban Meyer in college. Since at least 2000, only four college players have had at least 750 yards receiving and 750 yards rushing in the same season: Samuel, Harvin, Nate Ilaoa, and Mewelde Moore. A fullback, Ilaoa never played a down in the NFL, but Harvin and Moore both had 1,000-yard seasons and multiple fantasy-relevant campaigns in the NFL. Additionally, as biophysical specimens and equity holders, 2017 Samuel and 2009 Percy are highly comparable:

  • Rookie Samuel: 21 years old, 5’11” and 196 lbs., 4.31-second 40, pick No. 40
  • Rookie Percy: 21, 5’11” and 192 lbs., 4.41-second 40, No. 22

They’re doppelgängers: 2009 Percy has more draft capital while Samuel is the superior athlete, but these two are as comparable as any draft prospects can be. While Percy might seem like an unfortunate comparison, it should be remembered that he had four fantasy-relevant campaigns to open his career in Minnesota before concussions and knee injuries sidelined him. It’s hard to throw retroactive shade on a receiver who averaged 73.8 scrimmage YPG, 0.54 TDPG, and 16.27 DraftKings PPG for his first NFL team.

Used primarily out of the backfield and in the slot at Ohio State, Samuel is likely to be used in a similar (and Percy-esque) way in Carolina: Quick screens, short routes, jet sweeps, and probably even a few pitches and handoffs from the tailback position. Samuel is the most electric player on the Panthers. He’s being selected after Funchess with his DRAFT ADP of 209.4 — but I’ll bet some Coors Lights that he finishes ahead of Funchess in yards and touchdowns this year.

Greg Olsen, TE

It’s hard to know what to say about #überWitten. He’s probably a smidgen overvalued at his 50.1 DRAFT ADP, but he’s led the Panthers in receptions and yards receiving in each of the last four seasons with 1,000-yard campaigns in the past three. Olsen’s lone drawback is his touchdown deficiency: In his six years with Newton, Olsen has scored more than six touchdowns in a season just once. Still, he’s been a top-six fantasy tight end each year of the last half-decade, and in 2016 only Zach Ertz and Dennis Pitta ran more routes per game than Olsen (50.3). Now that his contract situation seems to have settled — he’s reportedly no longer demanding an extension — he makes for a fine (even if uninspiring) high-floor mid-round selection.

2017 Futures

In the futures market the Panthers currently have a 2017 win total of 8.5 games with a -175 over and +145 under. They’re also even to make the playoffs and -130 not to. These lines are fascinating. Although Rivera is a respectable 53-42-1 in Carolina, he’s fielded sub-.500 squads in four of six years. Of course, over the last four years (since Shula took over as OC) the Panthers have gone 40-23-1 and made the postseason three times. What the market is saying with these lines is that the Panthers are extremely likely to rebound and win at least nine games but also unlikely to make the playoffs because of the competition in the NFC.

If you think the Panthers won’t hit the over on their win total, great. You’re in the minority, but that’s fine. The market is telling you that the Panthers are unlikely to make the playoffs, so you might be right that they’ll be under 8.5 wins. Most non-playoff teams are. If, though, you think the Panthers will hit the over, you might as well also pick them to make the playoffs — because the strong majority of teams with at least nine wins historically make the postseason. Or you could just pick them to win the playoffs and not wager on the win total. Why be -175 when you can be even money on a similar proposition? Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Panthers the ninth-easiest schedule of 2017.

The Panthers are currently +2,200 to win the Super Bowl, +1,400 to win the NFC, and +250 to win the NFC South. While the Panthers have higher odds to win the Super Bowl than the Cardinals (+3,300) and Vikings (+3,300), they all have the same odds to win the NFC. Relative to the other teams in the field, the Panthers offer more value in the NFC future than the Super Bowl future. The Panthers have won the NFC South in three of the last four years. Despite their 6-10 finish last season, they still have the division’s best record over the last two years at 21-11 — and unlike the division rival Falcons they’re not coming off a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss with effects that might linger into the season.

That was last year.

——

In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Panthers Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.

Ian Hartitz and Matt LaMarca contributed research to this article.