The Carolina Panthers have fielded a top-10 rushing offense in each of the past two years without actually producing a top-20 fantasy running back. That may seem like a difficult feat, even in the backfield committee era, but Cam Newton makes it possible. Newton ran for 741 yards last season at 5.8 per carry, becoming the first NFL quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Donovan McNabb in 2000.
If things go perfectly according to plan for the Panthers in 2013, then Cam won't repeat as the team's top-rusher. But plans blow up all the time in the NFL, so it's nice to have an indestructible do-everything athlete behind center, just in case.
Under new offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Carolina is expected to run a somewhat more conventional attack this season, perhaps dialing down the read-option without eliminating it entirely. Basically, the team will attempt to pick up where it left off at the end of 2012, when the Panthers closed the season by winning five of their last six games. Cam threw 10 touchdown passes and just two picks over those final six weeks, rushing for four scores and fumbling only once. Newton also had more carries in the second-half of the season than in the first (68 vs. 59), so fantasy owners won't complain if the November-December playbook finds its way into 2013.
Cam's best fantasy attribute is his dominance at the goal line — he's rushed for 22 TDs in his first two pro seasons, an absurd total. There's no reason to think he can't run for another 6-10 scores this year, no matter how frequently (or from whichever alignment) he carries the ball. When asked recently about Newton's rushing workload, Shula offered this:
“It’s going to need to be a balancing act for a lot of reasons. We’ve all seen what happens to quarterbacks when they run the ball a lot. ... But we’ve also got something with Cam that a lot of people don’t have — the ability for him to run the ball. We want to keep defenses off balance. The threat of him running at any time is what we want to keep.”
The Panthers' run game may not continue to rank among the NFL's best if Newton doesn't own a significant percentage of the carries. Jonathan Stewart remains on the PUP list as of this writing, still recovering from offseason ankle surgeries. (Yup, plural. Surgeries. Both ankles.) DeAngelo Williams clearly has a chance to dominate the backfield work, with Mike Tolbert in a supporting role. DeAngelo has been dirt-cheap at the draft table thus far (ADP 119.7); there's little chance he'll disappoint at that price. Remember, he closed with a 210-yard performance last year, an indication that he's not completely cooked. But Williams also hasn't run for a 1-yard touchdown since Cam arrived in town, so he'll need to do his scoring from distance. Newton and Tolbert combined for 14 rushing TDs of five yards or less in 2012; Stewart and Williams combined for just two. This team simply has an unfair short-yardage weapon at quarterback, and they'll again lean on him in 2013.
As a passer, Newton took a small step backward in terms of accuracy last season — his completion percentage fell from 60.0 to 57.7 — but he also committed fewer turnovers and his yards-per-attempt climbed to 8.0. He was particularly effective on deep throws (20-plus yards downfield), connecting on 28-of-63 attempts for 952 yards and six scores, posting one of the league's highest completion rates on deep balls (per Pro Football Focus). Cam's arm strength is outstanding, so his success in the vertical game should come as no great surprise. He was also excellent off play-action in 2012 according to PFF, gaining 10.4 yards per attempt and posting a significant increase in completion percentage (+7.7).
As Carolina enters the third year of the Newton era, you'd like to think the coaching staff now has a well-developed understanding of how to best use his ridiculous gifts. Shula was a continuity hire — he served as Cam's position coach in 2011 and 2012 — so there's no obvious need to panic about regime change. Newton was the fourth highest-scoring QB in our game last season, and he's fourth at his position in ADP right now. I can't say I love Newton's current price tag in Yahoo! leagues (ADP 28.2), but that has very little to do with the player and more to do with positional depth. If you absolutely need to own a dual-threat quarterback, you can get Kaepernick or Wilson a full round later than Cam. Or you can snag Griffin 20 picks later. Or you can draft Vick as part of a platoon (ADP 117.3). Or you can just draft Ryan or Stafford or Romo, scrapping the dual-threat plan. The point is, the second and third tiers at quarterback are loaded with high-ceiling options.
But without respect to draft position, I'm definitely a Cam believer. It helps that he has a still-productive Steve Smith at his disposal.
Smith caught 73 balls for 1174 yards on 138 targets last year, but a Clausen-era touchdown total (4) prevented him from ranking as anything more than a WR2. Over the past two seasons Smith has hauled in 46 receptions of 20-plus yards, so it's tough to argue that he's lost much big-play ability, even at age 34. Assuming good health, you have to figure we'll get another 70-1000 campaign from Smith, with the potential for more.
The No. 2 option in this passing game is tight end Greg Olsen, a player who established new career highs in receptions (69) and receiving yards (843) last year. Olsen is a respectable mid-draft option for those who can't pull the trigger on Graham in the early rounds; there's no reason to think he won't again see another 95-110 targets. Brandon LaFell showed us enough last season to retain his sleeper appeal, and he's entering the final year of his rookie deal. He's made steady-if-not-spectacular statistical gains over his three NFL seasons. If you can use a 50-750-5 receiver in your league, then keep LaFell in your plans. Ted Ginn, Armanti Edwards and Domenik Hixon are battling for position in this receiving hierarchy beyond LaFell, though none of them need to be drafted in fantasy leagues of standard size. If you're in a format that scores for return yardage, Ginn gets interesting — the Cam-Ginn pairing should give us a few highlight plays.
You probably don't need an expert to point out Luke Kuechly's beastliness, not after his 165-tackle rookie season. He's an obvious IDP draft target, along with DEs Greg Hardy (11 sacks) and Charles Johnson (12.5). We can't recommend this team D/ST, however, because A) the division schedule is a minefield and B) the Panthers' secondary could be a little rough. Let's just order a few à la carte IDPs, avoiding this defense in standard leagues.
2012 team stats: 22.3 points per game (19), 245.4 passing yards per game (16), 130.5 rushing yards per game (9)
Previous Juggernauts: 32. NY Jets, 31. Oakland, 30. Jacksonville, 29. Buffalo, 28. Cleveland, 27. Tennessee, 26. San Diego, 25. Miami, 24. St. Louis, 23. Pittsburgh, 22. Arizona, 21. Minnesota, 20. Kansas City, 19. Chicago, 18. Baltimore, 17. Philadelphia, 16. Indianapolis
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