This is one of those Juggernaut entries where it's important to point out, right here at the top, that we're having a fantasy discussion. No one is going to argue that Carolina can't deliver another 12-win season. This team has a stellar defense, plus a record-setting dual-threat quarterback. The Panthers will clearly be a dangerous team in 2014.
But, again, we're here to have a fantasy conversation. For all of this team's obvious real-life strengths, Carolina doesn't have a receiver or running back on the roster who will be started in standard fantasy leagues in Week 1. When that's the case, you're something less than a fantasy juggernaut. The Panthers ranked near the bottom of the NFL in passing last year, and — with apologies to Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant — it's not as if their receiving corps significantly improved during the offseason. The committee backfield is still in place, too, and it's just as uninspiring as it was in 2013.
“I joked with people that my fantasy value went up after we got rid of our four receivers, but it’s the truth,” Williams said last week. ... “I went from probably being drafted in the fifth and sixth round to being in the first round — me and Jonathan [Stewart] alike, because we have no receivers.”
Funny, but, um ... no. He's not a first-rounder. Or a fifth-rounder. Or a sixth.
Williams is a 31-year-old back who's averaged 4.22 yards per carry over the past two seasons. He's not utilized heavily as a receiver, and he's barely a rumor when his team is near the goal-line. Since 2012, Williams and Stewart have combined for just two rushing/receiving TDs from inside the 10-yard-line. Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert have combined for 27 during that stretch.
Essentially, the only path to consistent fantasy production for either Williams, Stewart or Tolbert involves injuries to two of the three — whoever is left standing would inherit a decent workload. If the trio remains relatively healthy, the distribution of carries will probably look something like 150-120-50. DeAngelo figures to see the most hand-offs, Stewart the most receptions, and Tolbert will poach the touchdowns. So yeah, it's still a messy committee, full of flexes. If forced to take a flier on one of these backs, Stewart would probably be my guy; he's available at no cost in Yahoo leagues, and healthy for the first time in memory. But really, if you land any of these backs, let's hope it wasn't by design.
Greg Olsen is one of the league's few tight ends who opens the season as his team's presumptive No. 1 receiver. This fact says as much about the depleted, undesirable state of the Panthers' receiving corps as it does about Olsen's talent. Still, this is a high-floor player coming off a year in which he established new career highs in receptions (73) and targets (111), while gaining 816 yards and crossing the goal line six times. Olsen hasn't missed a game for any reason since 2007, so he earns high marks for reliability. In an average fantasy draft, he's the seventh tight end off the board (ADP 64.4); he finished eighth at his position in fantasy scoring last season and sixth the year before, so you can't say he isn't appropriately priced. In fact, an argument can be made that Olsen is the most properly rated player in fantasy.
At wide receiver, Carolina purged the roster of last year's bums — Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon — in favor of new bums. The team failed to land a marquee free agent wideout, settling instead for a pair of serviceable-if-unspectacular vets, Cotchery and Avant. After years of irrelevance, Cotchery surprisingly reemerged as a useful fantasy commodity in Pittsburgh last season (46-602-10), but you have to think his touchdown total will be halved in 2014. Tiquan Underwood is new to the scene as well, and unlikely to assist fantasy owners. Ideally, he'd be a low-usage deep threat.
The most interesting receiver on this team — and also the guy with the widest range of potential outcomes — is Florida State rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Most of you will recall his game-winning short-range catch in the BCS title game, but you may have missed some of the ugly drops throughout the year. Benjamin has rare size, bordering on freakishness — he's 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, with a 6-foot-11 wingspan — though he didn't exactly test off the charts at the combine in any drill (4.61 speed, 32.5-inch vertical). He had only one season of high-end production as a collegiate player (54-1011-15), and clearly lacks polish. Still, he landed in a great situation, on a team with no special talents at receiver. Benjamin will see plenty of snaps, and he should eventually develop into a dominant red-zone receiver. He isn't likely to pile up catches in 2014, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he led the Panthers in receiving scores. He doesn't carry an intimidating price tag in Yahoo drafts (ADP 127.0), so he's a reasonable late target in standard formats.
Finally, we get to the truly fun stuff...
Cam Newton is a bad, bad man. Sure, his yardage dipped last season, but he reached new career marks in completion percentage (61.7), passing TDs (24) and QB rating (88.8). He also directed late, game-winning drives against the Niners, Pats, Dolphins and Saints, earning clutchiness credibility. Newton was at his best out of play-action, per Pro Football Focus, completing 70.0 percent of his throws (7.9 Y/A) while tossing 10 TD passes and just two picks. To no one's surprise, Cam led all quarterbacks in rushing TDs for the third straight year (6), also topping the position in carries (111) and yards (585). When you draft this guy, you're basically getting a middle-tier passer and a flex-worthy running back — it's like filling a single roster spot with both Alex Smith and Steven Jackson. Or Joe Flaco plus LeGarrette Blount. Or ... well, you get what I'm saying. Newton is borderline unfair.
Cam is returning from offseason ankle surgery, but he's expected to be operating at full capacity by the start of camp. He's reportedly been working with Benjamin, too, developing rapport with the gigantic first-year receiver. Newton has ranked as a top-five fantasy QB in each of his three NFL seasons (and done so with sketchy receivers), so you can expect another upper-tier finish.
The Panthers defense, led by volume tackler Luke Kuechly, was outstanding last season. Carolina led the NFL in sacks (60) while finishing second in both yards and points-allowed (301.3 YPG, 15.1 PPG). Thus, we're drafting this D/ST as a top-five unit. It's great, a stellar group loaded with notable IDPs. The individual players to target include top-tier names like Kuechly (156 tackles) and Greg Hardy (15.0 sacks), along with Thomas Davis (123 tackles) and Charles Johnson (11.0 sacks). The Panthers don't necessarily have the league's friendliest schedule, but they finish with Tampa Bay and Cleveland in Weeks 15-16, when the money is made in fantasy.
2013 team stats: 22.9 PPG (NFL rank 18), 211.2 pass YPG (27), 24 pass TDs (15), 126.6 rush YPG (11), 30.2 rush attempts per game (7), 29.6 pass attempts per game (30)