A New Receiving Crew In Carolina
April 15, 2014 | Matt Franciscovich
Every offseason, teams acquire new talent to strengthen weak areas from the previous year. The Carolina Panthers had a successful season and made the playoffs in 2013, but a clear weakness was their receiving corps. Carolina finished with 190.2 passing yards per game which placed them 29th overall in the regular season and finished tied for 15th in passing touchdowns with 24.
The Panthers have completely revamped their wide receiver staff this winter. They said goodbye to veteran Steve Smith and lost Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. to free agency. Filling the vacant roster spots so far are Jerricho Cotchery who had a career year with Pittsburgh in 2013, Tiquan Underwood, formerly of Tampa Bay, and former Philadelphia receiver Jason Avant who signed a one-year deal with Carolina.
These acquisitions may seem promising at first glance but after a closer look they are dissatisfying, especially from a fantasy perspective. Not one of the three were No. 1 receivers on their respective teams last season, and they all bring experience but arguably minimal fantasy potential. Despite Carolina’s attempts to rebuild their air attack, former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb thinks the Panthers should still be worried about their passing game next year—definitely not a situation any fantasy owner wants to deal with, much like the team’s running back situation.
How much fantasy value does the new Carolina crew hold for 2014, and how will they affect quarterback Cam Newton’s production going forward? Let’s find out just exactly who these new pass catchers are in Carolina and how they might excite or underwhelm the fantasy world next season.
2013 WR RANKINGS
Here is a snapshot of how the aforementioned pass catchers fared in fantasy last year:
33. J. Cotchery – PIT
39. S. Smith – CAR
49. B. LaFell – CAR
53. T. Ginn Jr. – CAR
70. T. Underwood – TB
> 80. J. Avant – PHI (not ranked in top 80)
STAPLES STICKING AROUND
The staples of Carolina’s passing game are of course Newton and tight end Greg Olsen. Both will return to the Panthers next year and should continue to be top fantasy performers at their positions:
CAM NEWTON (will be 25 when the season begins)
Career: 3 seasons, 11,299 passing yards, 64 passing TDs, 2,032 rush yards, 28 rush TDs
2013: 3,379 passing yards, 24 passing TDs
In March it was reported that Newton underwent a minor surgery on his left ankle to repair ligament damage. His ankle was bothering him at the end of the postseason so the Panthers investigated the issue and determined that an operation was the best route. Carolina expects Newton’s recovery to take about four months so the fourth-year fantasy stud won’t be ready until training camp starts in July. If he is limited at all in the preseason it could effect his chemistry with the new receiving crew. Carolina has no reason to rush Newton back but every bit of practice will be of value to him in preparation for the season.
Newton finished third overall as a fantasy quarterback in 2013 with 3,379 passing yards, 24 touchdowns through the air, 585 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns. He had more touchdown runs than any Panthers running back last year and finished second on the team in both rushing attempts with 111 and total rushing yards with 585. One quarter of his 24 regular season passing touchdowns were caught by tight end Greg Olsen with six.
GREG OLSEN (will be 29 when the season begins)
Career: 7 seasons, 381 receptions, 4,180 yards, 36 TDs
2013: 73 receptions, 816 yards, 6 TDs
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen had the same amount of receptions in 2013 as receivers Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Mike Wallace with 73. He also beat out Welker, Greg Jennings and his own former teammate Steve Smith in receiving yards on the year.
Since coming to Carolina in 2011 (Newton’s rookie year) Olsen has racked up 16 touchdowns, 2,199 yards and has not missed one regular season game which makes him an extremely valuable fantasy tight end. It’s clear that Newton and Olsen have a connection and that is not going to change any time soon. Unless Carolina is able to draft and develop a rookie receiver into a rare first year breakout, Olsen is poised to lead the team in receiving stats again next season. He has potential to be a Top 5 fantasy tight end in 2014, as long as Newton remains his quarterback.
THE NEW CAROLINA CREW
JERRICHO COTCHERY (will be 32 when the season begins)
Career: 10 seasons 437 receptions, 5,558 yards, 30 TDs (10 last year)
2013: 46 receptions, 602 yards, 10 TDs
Cotchery will be 32-years-old when the 2014 season starts. His ten touchdowns last year were more than he scored in four previous years combined. Although he finished fourth in receptions in Pittsburgh, he made the most of his opportunities catching more touchdown passes than any other Steelers receiver in 2013.
The veteran spoke highly of his new quarterback in March:
“First and foremost as a receiver, you look at the quarterback position. I left Ben Roethlisberger. If you’re going to leave a quarterback like that you better be sure that you’re going to go to someone that can play at a high level. I feel we have that here with Cam Newton. That’s what I looked at.”
Even though Cotchery ranked amongst the top 35 fantasy receivers last season, a repeat performance is a lot to ask from the aging veteran. He is capable of eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards in a season as he did in 2007 with the New York Jets but its doubtful that he scores ten touchdowns in a season ever again. He could be a decent fantasy bench warmer in 2014 or a candidate for a good plug-and-play start when bye weeks begin.
TIQUAN UNDERWOOD (will be 27 when the season begins)
Career: 5 seasons, 63 receptions, 1,006 yards, 6 TDs (4 last year)
2013: 24 receptions, 440 yards, 4 TDs
The 27-year-old has recently expressed his excitement to be given a shot with the Panthers which is his fourth team in six seasons in the NFL. Underwood only played in ten games with Tampa Bay in 2013 and ended up fourth on the team in overall receptions with 24 (compared to Cam Newton’s 24 touchdown passes in 2013). To make matters worse, Tampa Bay suffered devastating quarterback woes with Josh Freeman who caused a lot of drama and only played in three games while rookie Mike Glennon experienced some expected first-year ups and downs. The Bucs finished dead last in the league in passing yards per game with 176.2.
Depending on who the Panthers take in the draft and how those picks stack up during training camp, Underwood could find himself competing for a starting spot, and he knows that:
“Absolutely, there is opportunity. There’s still free agency and the draft coming up. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m just happy to be part of the team and to be given an opportunity.”
Carolina’s head coach Ron Rivera has stated that the team will look to draft some wide receivers so a close eye should be kept on that situation. Either way, Underwood likely won’t be relevant in ten team leagues but could hold low value in leagues with deeper rosters.
JASON AVANT (will be 31 when the season begins)
Career: 8 seasons, 297 receptions, 3,646 yards, 12 TDs
2013: 38 receptions, 447 yards, 2 TDs
Avant turns 31-years-old this month and has spent his entire eight-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles. He has played second fiddle to DeSean Jackson dating back to 2008 and has not managed to eclipse more than three touchdowns or more than 700 receiving yards in any one season.
From a fantasy standpoint, Avant had the least impact in 2013 of the new Carolina receivers and it’s reasonable to believe that this will remain the case in 2014. Coach Rivera might argue otherwise as he supported the signing:
“He provides a versatile player at receiver and brings good size as well as experience to the position.”
THE FORMER CAROLINA CREW
STEVE SMITH (will be 35 when the season begins)
Career: 13 seasons, 836 receptions, 12,197 yards, 67 TDs
2013: 64 receptions, 745 yards, 4 TDs
Steve Smith will be 35-years-old when the season begins and his production significantly slowed last year. The veteran has been with Carolina his entire career and he brings priceless experience with him to Baltimore. He will join Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown with the Ravens.
Smith and Brown combined last season for 1,652 receiving yards which accounted for 46% of the Ravens total air attack.
Baltimore also bolstered their tight end position this offseason with the re-signing of Dennis Pitta and picked up veteran Owen Daniels formerly of the Houston Texans. Quarterback Joe Flacco will have plenty of weapons to target, so in order to be effective in fantasy, Steve Smith will have find his own niche among the Ravens’ pass catchers. He may be able to produce as a go-to short slot guy which might boost his value in PPR leagues, or as a reliable redzone receiver racking up touchdown catches, if he’s lucky.
BRANDON LAFELL (will be 27 when the season begins)
Career: 4 seasons, 167 receptions, 2,385 yards, 13 TDs (5 last year)
2013: 49 receptions, 627 yards, 5 TDs
Brandon LaFell has been a consistent receiver over his four years in the league, good for somewhere around 500-600 yards and has collected three, four and five touchdowns in his past three seasons respectively. The 27-year-old signed with the Patriots and joins Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as Tom Brady’s main targets (no, I did not forget about tight end Rob Gronkowski, but there are major question marks regarding his availability heading into the preseason).
LaFell said that he did consider who the Patriots’ other receivers were when making the decision to go to New England but when you have a quarterback like Tom Brady throwing the ball, the pros outweigh the cons. Both Edelman and Amendola have struggled to stay healthy throughout their careers so if one of them has to miss any time, LaFell’s value will skyrocket as a top target in the high-powered Patriots passing game.
TED GINN JR. (will be 29 when the season begins)
Career: 7 seasons, 197 receptions, 2,604 yards, 11 TDs (5 last year)
2013: 36 receptions, 556 yards, 5 TDs
Ted Ginn Jr. was only on Carolina for one year but saw playing time in all 16 regular season games in 2013. He scored a career-high five touchdowns with the Panthers and will be 29-years-old when he starts his eighth season in Arizona. Ginn was brought to the Cardinals on a three-year deal mainly due to his speed which the team’s other receivers lack. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd combined for a total of 1,995 receiving yards in 2013 which accounted for about 49% of the team’s total through the air and the duo caught 15 of the team’s 24 passing touchdowns. Ginn represents a speedy deep threat who will likely be stamped a boom-or-bust fantasy player on a week-to-week basis in 2014.