2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Carolina Panthers
June 16, 2015 | Chet
Carolina finished the 2014 season at 7-8-1, but that was enough to secure the top spot in the NFC South, marking the first time in franchise history that the Panthers made the postseason in back to back years. After starting 3-8-1, they closed the final month with four straight wins. As evidence by their record, they weren’t overly impressive and were on average outscored by over a touchdown against the eight playoff teams they faced, including the postseason.
2015 Panthers Schedule
Here’s the normal disclaimer to tread lightly when putting a ton of stock into early schedule analysis. Now that we’re past it, the Carolina Panthers do get a very favorable paper slate of games, facing the AFC and NFC South for 10 games and another four against NFC East teams. For a team that stacked nearly all of their wins against sub-.500 teams a season ago, it’s hard not to like what has been placed in front of them, especially for the final quarter of the season even though that portion is loaded with road games.
Owners are apparently taking notice as well, with four Panther players being selected in the first seven rounds of fantasy drafts despite being one of the most middling offenses in the league last season. 2014 was the third consecutive season that the Panthers were in the bottom half of offensive scoring since Cam Newton’s rookie season when they were fifth.
Is Cam a Fantasy Scam?
Now entering his fifth season in the league, it’s fair to start questioning the fantasy placement of Cam Newton. Newton has been a quarterback that has always posted attractive accumulative totals for fantasy, and his weekly ceiling is intoxicating, but how viable is it? Since entering the league, he has 10 games with 30 or more fantasy points, tied for Drew Brees with the most over that time span, yet only three of those games have come over the past two seasons. As C.D. Carter pointed out, those highs and lows have a high correlation with Panther wins and losses. It’s been even more so the case over the past two seasons as Newton has been a top-12 weekly scorer in just 12 of his past 30 games played.
It’s also fair to really question if Newton is a good enough passer in the NFL to ever be able to buoy his low points. 2014 was the third time in four seasons that he posted a completion percentage below the league average and the second straight year he’s posted an adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) mark below 7.0. Over the past two seasons, he has just 12 games with multiple touchdown passes, better than only Colin Kaepernick amongst two year starters, and the same amount as Mike Glennon.
He’s become extremely rushing driven as he averaged just 13.7 points per game in 2014 in which he didn’t record a rushing touchdown as opposed to 24.7 when he did. The good news in that area is that in 2014, he did increase his rushing output a bit after a dip in 2013.
While the above does paint Newton in a negative light, there are still things to feel good about heading into this season for fantasy. When Carolina as a team and Newton are at their best is when they are a controlled team, relying on the run game and defense to dictate game flow. That was evident over of the final four weeks of the regular season. Over those four weeks, Carolina ran the ball 54.9 percent of their plays as opposed to 41 percent over their first 12. In the three games that Newton played over that time, he finished those weeks as the QB1, QB7 and QB7. This season, the schedule offers a lot of opportunity for Newton and the Panthers to play to their terms, which is vital for him accessing his ceiling.
I believe Newton is going to have a top eight season in 2015 when the dust settles in terms of overall numbers, but the weekly volatility that inherently comes with him is still far too great when investing a seventh round pick or earlier, which is where he’s going. The way I treat the quarterback position in fantasy is to play it from the floor up, so he’s just not my type of player if I can’t start him every week yet have to take in a place in which you have to do that to warrant his selection. With no discount to match his recent fantasy output, he needs to slide in drafts to a point in which I’m not tethered to using him every week as my initial plan of attack.
#FreeJStew Has Become a Reality
Jonathan Stewart is finally freed from sharing backfield duties with De’Angelo Williams and will seemingly be handed the keys to the Carolina backfield based on his strong finish to the 2014 season. Over the final five weeks of the regular season, Stewart was tied for seventh in the NFL with 91 rushing attempts and was second in rushing yards with 486 on a robust 5.3 yards per attempt. He then added another 193 rushing yards on 37 carries (5.2 YPC) in the postseason versus two good defenses in Arizona and Seattle.
Per Pro Football Focus, Stewart forced a missed tackle once every 3.57 touches, which was the second best mark of all backs with 200 plus touches behind only Marshawn Lynch. In terms of success rates, Stewart was one of only 13 running backs to be better than league average on every level of run.
|Player||Team||Att||2 Yds or Less||%||5+ Yds||%||10+ Yds||%|
Of course injury concerns are in play with Stewart as he hasn’t played 16 games in a season since 2011 and has missed multiple games in each of those seasons. The other concern is his scoring opportunities. Stewart has scored just four times on his past 316 carries. Since joining the Panthers, Cam Newton has accounted for 47 percent of the Carolina rushing scores (34) and owns 36 percent of their rushing attempts inside the five-yard line. Outside of Newton, Mike Tolbert has also been one of the league’s best in converting short yardage carries near the end zone for scores as well. Here are the numbers for each on carries inside the 5-yard line over their careers.
Even with that potential lack of touchdown seasoning to go along with warranted health concerns, I’m still really into Stewart at his current RB3 asking price. I like him a lot more as my third back than my second since you’re insulated a bit from the red marks, but I definitely believe he posts a top-20 scoring season and would rather have him over all of the rookie backs not named Melvin Gordon.
The rest of the Panther backfield is filled with some lackluster talent, with Fozzy Whitaker, Jordan Todman, Brandon Wegher and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne all lobbying for roster spots this summer. The early battle should be between Todman and Whitaker based on each profiling as change of pace and passing game options, but both are complimentary backs at their best and figure to have a similar role regardless if Stewart goes down or not.
Artis-Payne, who they selected in the fifth round, is a guy to monitor for feature touches on the roster in the event that Stewart misses time again this season. I wasn’t particularly high on him coming out this season, but he’s coming off of a workload season Auburn and has baseline level measurables. It’s also a perfect situation for him as Carolina runs often from shotgun and still runs some of the plays that Auburn runs that were put in place when they drafted Newton. I’ll monitor Artis-Payne’s effectiveness in camp and preseason to see if I should be hotter on him, but if Stewart is lost, I don’t see one back as being a must own or hot pickup since their volume and touchdown potential will likely be compromised.
Panther Passing Game
The Carolina passing game was extremely shallow in 2015, with Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen occupying 49.6 percent of the team targets. The Panthers have Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown, Brenton Bersin and late season pickup Stephen Hill returning to compete for roster spots as well as adding Ted Ginn and Jarrett Boykin into the mix.
With Kelvin Benjamin now lost for the season with a torn ACL, rookie receiver Devin Funchess stands to be the biggest beneficiary. Carolina traded up to select him at pick 41 overall, so the organization is definitely high on him. Our Chad Scott profiled Funchess here prior to the draft and he has a unique blend of size and athleticism to go with subpar production which made him one of the biggest conundrums heading into the draft. At 6’4”, 232 pounds, Funchess is similar in build to the already in place Benjamin and just as inconsistent on the field of play. He doesn’t always play up his size physically and has a lot of nuance to learn at the position since moving outside full time just last season at Michigan.
Funchess is only 21 years old, so there’s a lot of room for him to develop and Carolina invested a lot into him. The question will be if he inherits the exact role Benjamin did as a rookie. Benjamin occupied 26.6 percent of the Panther targets last season, but was also just an ancillary component when Carolina was playing their best football. Over the final four weeks, Benjamin had just one lone week even among the top 40 scorers at his position, and that was a game started by Derek Anderson. The other three weeks he finished as WR44, WR40 and WR49. Funchess can arguably be more efficient than Benjamin was, but it’s important to remember that a large part of Benjamin’s inefficiency is also Cam Newton’s. 58 of bejmain’s 145 targets targets were deemed uncatchable per Pro Football Focus . That 40 percent mark of uncatchable targets was the seventh highest tally at the receiver position. Newton himself has also been a very poor quarterback in the red zone, which played a role in Benjamin converting just three of 17 targets for scores in that area.
Still, Funchess is the player that will see the largest spike in draft position post Benjamin injury. If he doesn’t fully run with the first unit in the remainder of the preseason, his draft spot could still hold in the seventh to ninth round area, which is a fair price point. Even if Carolina doesn’t bring anyone else in post preseason roster cuts around the league, I have a hard time seeing Funchess seeing as large of a target share as Benjamin did in 2014. I know you’ll laugh, but Ginn and Newton actually have a little chemistry. Ginn had 15 percent of the Panther targets in 2013, catching 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns. That’s not going to run you off of Funchess, but that’s an example of potential target nibbling that can prevent him from seeing north of 130 looks. In the end, he’s still warranted to a spot on your roster as a bench receiver to start the season in hopes of him reaching a significant role in the offense.
Olsen has been stellar since joining the Panthers, finishing as TE7, TE7 and TE5 while improving his target share and reception totals each season. Last year he was also the most bankable tight end outside of Rob Gronkowski and even rivaled him in some spots. Olsen turned in six top-three scoring weeks at tight end, which led all players and was tied with Gronk with eight top-six weeks while finishing second to him with 11 top-12 weeks.
Olsen is a surefire top-five tight end option this season and I really wouldn’t even blink over anyone that would take him as high as second amongst the position. The thing preventing me from doing so is his lack of high end touchdown production compared to Jimmy Graham or Travis Kelce. Just once over his eight seasons has he had more six scores in a season and has consistently been a subpar red zone contributor. For his career, he has a 26.2 percent RZTDR, which is very pedestrian for a tight end.
I brought up questioning the positive red zone regression Benjamin may have had in rolling over to Funchess and it’s hard to see Olsen having similar upside considering how poor Newton has been when the field shrinks. For as dominant of a red zone weapon that he is rushing, passing is a different story. Here’s the company that Newton is keeping for active quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in the red zone and also have completed less than half of their passes there.
|Player||Cmp||Att||Cmp%||TD||TD %||Int||Int %|
I do believe that despite having such a steady floor recently, Olsen seems the most fragile purchase of the group. And now that Benjamin is injured, his price is going to be really expensive and could potentially jump Travis Kelce as the TE3. He’s never been this expensive before and plays a position in which there’s no real necessity to make a play on a floor within the position at that price, even if it’s relatively safe. Unless he slides deeper in a draft in which everyone is waiting on a tight end after Travis Kelce is off the board, I’ll be letting another owner take Olsen.