|By Shawn Childs, Wednesday, September 30, 2015|
The Panthers have made the playoffs in each of the last two years, but last year, they backed into the division title with a 7-8-1 record. They defeated the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card round. In the team's 20-year history, the Panthers have made the playoffs six times and lost their only Super Bowl appearance. Their offense finished 19th in the league in points scored (339) and 16th in yards per game (346.7). Ron Rivera returns for his fifth season as the head coach. He has a 32-31-1 record with two playoff berths. Mike Shula will make the offensive calls for the third straight year. Mike has been in Carolina's system for the past five seasons. Sean McDermott has been in charge of the Panthers' defense for the last four seasons. He has 14 years of coaching experience in the NFL. Carolina allowed the 10th-fewest yards per game (339.8), but offenses were able to score 374 points, the 12th-most. The defense allowed 133 more points than in 2013, when Carolina had the league's second-best D.
Carolina made minimal changes in the offseason. They lost offensive tackle Byron Bell to the Tennessee Titans after a dreadful season. He allowed 11 sacks, six QB hits and 43 QB hurries with no value as a run blocker. They replaced him with the disappointing Michael Oher. In 11 games, he allowed six sacks, four QB hits and 26 QB hurries with losing value as a run blocker. Oher's season ended in December due to a toe injury. Guard Fernando Velasco also left to play with the Titans. Over the past couple of years, Fernando has been a low-level backup.
Running back DeAngelo Williams signed with Pittsburgh Steelers. His game has been declining as a result of injuries in recent years. The Panthers added wide receivers Ted Ginn and Jarrett Boykin. Ginn will add value in the return game and can pitch in as a deep threat on offense. Boykin could develop into this team's No. 3 receiving target.
Safety Thomas Decoud was cut after one failed season in Carolina. Jason Trusnik was added for depth at linebacker. He will offer a slight edge in run defense. Safety Kurt Coleman was another depth add.
The Panthers had only six picks in this year's draft. In the first round, they took linebacker Shaq Thompson. Shaq has plus quickness and enough speed to succeed at linebacker if he adds more bulk, but he played multiple positions in college and also may have value as a safety if he can't make the weight at LB. Thompson is a playmaker who will be dangerous with the ball in his hands given his history as a running back.
Second-rounder Devin Funchess should develop into an interesting weapon for Cam Newton. Devin has a tight end's body at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, but he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at his pro day. Funchess' size will give him an advantage in the red zone and versus one-on-one coverage. His hands, route-running technique and quickness need a lot of work.
In the fourth round, Carolina tried to address its offensive line with guard Daryl Williams. He'll have the most value in a quick-hitting power run game. His pass-blocking skills have limited upside due to questions regarding his speed and athletic ability.
LB David Mayo was added in the fifth round. Mayo has solid strength (24 reps in the bench press), but he isn't especially quick and is undersized at 6 feet 2, 228 pounds. His speed won't be a difference maker at the next level.
Also in the fifth round, the Panthers threw a dart at the RB position with Cameron Artis-Payne. CAP runs with power and has some open-field ability, but he tends to be a looker rather anticipating when a hole will open at the point of attack. He'll need a lot of touches to put up winning stats, but his resume suggests his game isn't good enough to start in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers RB Cameron Artis-Payne
Carolina finished seventh in rushing with 2,036 yards, 10 touchdowns and a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. They ran the ball 473 times, eighth-most in the league. The Panthers allowed 42 sacks while finishing 19th in passing yards (219.4 per game). They put up 23 passing touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Michael Oher looks to be the favorite to start at left tackle. His only season of success came in his 2009 rookie campaign, when he graded highly as a run blocker and allowed five sacks, six QB hits and 21 QB hurries. Michael has allowed 44 sacks in the past five seasons with huge negative value in run blocking. Oher's game has more risk than reward at this point of his career. He is coming off of toe surgery.
Left guard Andrew Norwell played pretty well in his rookie season after signing as an undrafted free agent. In his 11 starts, Norwell allowed only one sack, one QB hit and 16 QB hurries. He graded out slightly above league average in run blocking.
Center Ryan Kalil has been a stellar run blocker in his career and minimizes the damage as a pass protector. Last year, Ryan did struggle at times in pass pro (three sacks, two QB hits and 27 QB hurries).
Right guard Trai Turner handled himself well after being selected in the third round in 2014. Trai projects to be very solid in the run game with enough speed and quickness to hold his own in pass protection. Last season, Turner was only a league-average run blocker, but he didn't allow a sack in 11 starts, including the playoffs.
Mike Remmers will battle rookie Daryl Williams for the starting right tackle job. In 2014, Remmers moved into the starting lineup in Week 13 and delivered slightly below league average value in both run and pass blocking. Mike had only four plays of experience prior to last year after he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Williams will help in the run game. He may not have enough speed to pan out at tackle.
This line has risk at both tackle positions. However, the O-line flaws can be covered up to an extent by Newton's rushing ability. Carolina also lacks upside at the RB position.
The above chart shows the Panthers' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).
This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.
2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.
2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.
2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.
Carolina has five games on its schedule against below-average run defenses. The only tough game in that department will come against the Seattle Seahawks. They will have three game against poor pass defenses: the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Atlanta Falcons twice. But again, Cam Newton and company will have to deal with the Seahawks' Legion of Boom.
The Panthers' running backs totaled 1,474 yards on 364 carries (4.0 YPC). RBs accounted for 15.9 percent of Newton's completions. Carolina's tight ends saw 30 percent of the action (98 catches, 1,167 yards, seven TDs). The wide receivers caught 177 passes for 2,262 yards and 14 scores.
QB Cam Newton - Solid/Safe Pick
UPDATE (9/30): With such a poor supporting cast, Cam Newton has been forced to play a larger role in the Panthers' offense. At this pace, Newton could set career highs across board both as a runner and passer. His rushing totals over three games (144 yards and two scores) are providing a huge boost to his Fantasy production. At this rate, he is a lock to finish in the top five at his position.
Cam missed the first game of the 2014 season after suffering a minor rib fracture in late August. Later in the year, Newton missed a second game after suffering a back injury in a car crash. He carried the ball only 14 times for 42 yards over the first four games as he was still nursing his injured rib. He picked up the pace in Week 6, rushing 17 times for 117 yards and one touchdown. On the year, Cam had only one 300-yard passing game and two games with at least three combined scores. Newton has averaged only 30.6 pass attempts per game over the past three years, which is about 12.5 percent below the league average. His rushing touchdown total has declined each season all the way down to five in 2014. He set the NFL world on fire as a rookie in 2011 when he threw for 4,051 yards, ran for 706 more and scored 35 total TDs. The growth of the Panthers' defense has turned Cam into more of a game manager. The key to his Fantasy value will always be what he does with his legs. He doesn't have a great offensive line and has boring talent at the RB position. He really needs Devin Funchess to develop quickly and possibly get consistent contributions from the No. 3 wideout. With a full season of health, Newton should have no trouble passing for 3,500-plus yards with at least 600 yards rushing. That combination translates to 4,700 passing yards in most Fantasy scoring systems. Cam has an excellent chance of notching at least 28 TDs. Despite finishing last season as Fantasy's No. 17 QB, he has an opportunity to land inside the top six because of his mobility. As the 11th QB selected and with an ADP of 78 early in the draft season, Newton looks like a nice value choice.
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton
RB Jonathan Stewart - Gamble (high risk)
Stewart is coming off his best season since 2009 as he gained 990 yards from scrimmage in just 13 games (eight starts). However, yes, he missed three games with a knee injury and has missed 20 games over the past three years. Without DeAngelo Williams in the mix, the Panthers' backfield is Stewart's to own. Considering the poor offensive line, Jonathan ran for an impressive 4.6 yards per carry last season. The rest of Carolina's RBs averaged only 3.51 YPC. Jonathan was beastly down the stretch, taking 116 carries for 593 yards and two scores in the final six contests (including the playoffs). Stewart averaged better than 20 touches per game during this stretch. From 2008 through 2009, Jonathan tallied 20 TDs in 32 games. Stewart has talent; he just struggles with injuries. At least 250 touches should be within reach this fall. I expect 1,300 yards, 40 catches and eight or more scores from him. Stewart has a high-end RB2 opportunity and a favorable ADP (60) as the 26th RB selected in the early draft season. Just make sure you handcuff him.
Carolina Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart
RB Cameron Artis-Payne - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
Updated: 8/24 - It's hard to ignore training camp and pre-season, but don't be surprised if Cameron Artis-Payne enjoys some success this season if and when something happens to Jonathan Stewart. Dr. Roto went as far to call him the Carolina Breakout Sleeper.
WR Devin Funchess - Deep-league Only
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WR Jerricho Cotchery - Over the Hill (decreased production)
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WR Ted Ginn Jr. - Bye Week Fill-in
UPDATE (9/30): It speaks to the level of inexperience of Carolina's wide receiver corps that Ted Ginn is the team leader at his position. Now in his ninth year, Ginn is on pace to shatter his career-bests as a pass-catcher. Although Fantasy owners should remain skeptical, Ginn is absolutely worth a roster spot and could sneak his way into your starting lineup if the injury bug bites your team. Consider him a flex who loses some value in PPR formats since he is at his best when attacking deep downfield.
TE Greg Olsen - Stud (low risk)
UPDATE (9/30): Greg Olsen was already a top target, but an incomplete WR corps have forced the offense to run through him. Cam Newton is leaning heavily on the former Miami Hurricanes star. In three games, Olsen already accumulated 15 receptions for 215 yards and two TDs. If you didn't know already, Olsen is a lock to finish among the elite Fantasy tight ends.
Olsen's stats have been trending upward through each of the past four seasons. He set career highs in catches (84), yards (1008) and targets (123) last year and scored six times. He has found the end zone at least five times per season since the start of 2008. He hasn't missed a game since then either. Olsen ended five games with double-digit targets and four games with eight or more catches. He flashed elite upside in Weeks 14 and 15 as he caught 20 of 24 targets for 182 yards and one TD. Greg had the second-most snaps of any tight end in the league (1,091). He will be the No. 2 option in this passing game and has a strong chance of leading the team in catches because of his strong catch rate (68.3 in 2014, 66.9 over the past three years). Olsen is a top-five Fantasy TE with 70-plus receptions and 900-plus yards well within reach. He'll rank even higher if he can score a few more touchdowns. His early ADP is 55, making him the fourth TE off the board behind Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce. His resume is much stronger than Kelce's.
Carolina Panthers TE Greg Olsen
PK Graham Gano - Bye Week Fill-in
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Carolina - Solid/Safe Pick
The Panthers will face three teams with solid rushing offenses: the Seahawks, Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys. They potentially have seven favorable games against below-par ground attacks: The Falcons (twice), Titans, New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (twice). Carolina will finish the season against four teams that were weak in run offense last year. The Panthers' pass defense has the second-toughest schedule thanks to matchups against the Saints (twice), Falcons (twice) and Colts. They also have to stop the Packers and the NFC East's quality offenses. Over the first five games of the year, Carolina has four favorable matchups in the passing game: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Texans, Bucs and Seahawks. Then they have only two favorable matchups for the rest of the year: the Titans and Bucs.
Carolina permitted the 16th-most rushing yards (1,792). They allowed 4.5 yards per rush, tied for fourth-most. This defense didn't give up more rushing yards because opponents averaged only 24.8 carries per game, about two carries fewer than the league average. The Panthers gave up 14 rushing TDs and a league-high five runs of 40 yards or more. The Panthers had 40 sacks and allowed the 11th-fewest passing yards (3,645). They gave up 25 passing touchdowns and snatched 14 interceptions.
Defensive end Charles Johnson led Carolina's pass rush (10.5 sacks, 11 QB hits and 53 QB hurries). He has registered 52 sacks over the past five years. He played his best ball over the final eight games of the year when he racked up 6.5 sacks and was very good at stopping the run. Defensive tackle Kawann Short has played well in all areas through his first two NFL seasons. He was the Panthers' best run defender last year and picked up five sacks, six QB hits and 22 QB hurries. DT Star Lotulelei was a solid run defender as a rookie in 2013 after Carolina selected him 14th overall. He wasn't quite as good against the run in 2014. Star has limited upside as a pass rusher (two sacks, three QB hits, and 15 QB hurries last season). Kony Ealy appears to be the best option to replace Greg Hardy at right defensive end. However, he was a liability against the run and did minimal damage in the pass rush (four sacks, five QB hits and 10 QB hurries).
Linebacker Thomas Davis continued to play at a high level in his 10th year in the league. Davis adds value in run support and when rushing the QB. Yet the best part of his game comes in pass coverage (only allowed 6.5 yards per catch). LB Luke Kuechly has been one of the game's best. He is a plus run defender and is also asked to cover often. He faced 87 pass attempts last year and allowed 516 yards with two touchdowns. Luke has occasional value when rushing the QB (three sacks, one QB hit and 12 QB hurries). Rookie first-rounder Shaq Thompson is expected to start at the other LB position. Shaq will add speed and power to this defense, but his lack of size (6 feet, 228 pounds) may lead to him being neutralized in the pass rush.
Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly
Cornerback Josh Norman played pretty well in coverage after moving into the starting lineup in Week 8 (29 catches in 62 attempts for 311 yards and one touchdown). CB Bene Benwikere started the last six games of his rookie season and even though he allowed a high completion rate (67.2), he did a good job of keeping the play in front of him (10.7 yards per catch). He allowed only one TD on 61 pass attempts.
Safety Roman Harper was a slight negative in run support, and missed tackles led to him allowing most of his yards after the catch. Tre Boston is expected to start at strong safety. He, like Norman and Benwikere, helped stabilize this secondary late last year. The 2014 fourth-rounder offered no worse than average value against the run and the pass once he entered the starting lineup.
This team has talent on the defensive line and at linebacker. Carolina made some nice changes to its secondary during the 2014 season to improve the pass coverage. Their run defense still needs to step up. The Panthers have a tough schedule this year, especially against the pass. I don't see a ton of playmakers, which limits the defense's scoring opportunities. I see them more as a backup Fantasy defense with their most value coming over the first third of the season.