First Down: Is it time to permanently cage Panthers Smith, Williams?

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Every Monday, DeAngelo Williams(notes) and Steve Smith wake up to the same, unenviable nightmare.

The land-air combination, which fiercely assaulted opponents no so long ago, has sunk to an improbable low. Carolina’s overall incompetence is drowning the duo’s value. Both rank well outside starter outputs in points per week at their respective positions (D-Will, 34. Smith, 51).

Initial investors who’ve remained loyal have suffered harsh consequences. Unless they’ve made savvy moves to acquire waiver giants such as Peyton Hillis(notes), Brandon Lloyd(notes) and/or Steve Johnson(notes) or fleeced a leaguemate via trade, the affected, presumably buried in an insurmountable hole, have already redirected their energy toward other constructive projects like McRib consumption or finding a way to crash Miley Cyrus’ “Golly y’all, I’m legal!” birthday extravaganza.

Those supporters lucky enough to have weathered the storm continue to be faced with an age-old dilemma: Stick with the talent or trust another player in a better situation?

The answer tells two different tales.

In term of skills, there’s no doubting what Williams and Smith bring to the table. The former, one of the most dynamic runners in the league, single-handedly demolished fantasy opponents during the make believe playoffs just two years ago. When healthy, and running behind a formidable line, he’s an exceptional slasher capable of racking mammoth weekly totals.

Meanwhile, the latter, an undersized, darting target equipped with supreme elusiveness and speed has hauled in 601 career receptions, ranking between decorated pass catchers Joe Horn(notes) and Sterling Sharpe for 52nd all-time (11th among active players). At full-strength and operating within a functional offense, he’s a perennial lock for 80-plus catches, 1,200 yards and 7-10 touchdowns.

However, the continued absence of tackle Jeff Otah(notes) and a shoulder injury to Matt Moore(notes) clouds the tandem’s worth over the rest of the season. A patchwork offensive line combined with inexperienced rookie Jimmy Clausen(notes) is a recipe for disaster.

At this point, Smith is completely avoidable. If Moore, who is scheduled for an MRI Monday, is sidelined for an extended period of time, the four-time Pro Bowler is expendable in shallow formats. (UPDATE: Moore's season is done. He was place on injured reserve Monday). In four games with Clausen manning the controls, including Week 9, the grossly underused wideout has totaled a pathetic 10 receptions for 92 yards (23 ypg) and zero touchdowns, an underachieving performance which has placed a hefty burden onto Smith. Despite a very favorable remaining slate, including matchups against Cleveland, Seattle, Arizona and Atlanta (twice), he will continue to be an albatross dangling form the neck of owners blinded by optimism. Only a healthy Moore can salvage the receiver’s depressed value. Widely available weapons Sidney Rice(notes) (46-percent owned), James Jones(notes) (18-percent) and Roscoe Parrish(notes) (six-percent) may outpace him.

DeAngelo’s recovery prospects, however, are marginally brighter.

Out for the past two weeks with a wrenched foot, Williams is gunning for a Week 10 return. Considering the spectacular matchup (at Tampa) and with Jonathan Stewart(notes) foggy-headed, he could yield a mammoth windfall. The ultra-generous Bucs have surrendered 5.2 yards per carry, 136.9 yards per game and seven rushing touchdowns to RBs, good for fifth-most fantasy points allowed. If the Panthers O-line, a unit Stewart threw under the bus two weeks ago, can at least play average, D-Will could finally surpass the century mark for the first time this year. Equally accommodating clashes with Seattle (Week 13) and Arizona (Week 15) could turn a similar profit, though Moore’s availability is also vital to Williams’ profit potential. The passer’s ability to keep defenses honest creates opportunities for the ground game. Without him overloaded boxes will again be very common.

Because the Little Napoleon can be acquired for a six-pack of Schlitz and a Shake Weight – he was shipped last week for Josh Freeman(notes), Fred Jackson(notes), Beanie Wells(notes) and Sidney Rice in one-for-one Y! league trades – he’s worth the minimal investment. Inconsistency will continue to be the norm, but during critical junctures down the stretch, he will be the key to survival.

For Carolina’s shining stars, 2010 has been one endless Groundhog Day. Unfortunately, only DeAngelo may escape the unforgiving time loop.

Fearless Forecast (Smith): 29 receptions, 283 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns

Fearless Forecast (DeAngelo): 142 carries, 596 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 92 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns

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