Juggernaut Index No. 10: The Carolina Panthers

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If you thought there was a compelling argument to draft Mike Vick No. 1 overall in fantasy leagues last season, then you have to at least be tempted to take Panthers quarterback Cam Newton at the top in 2012, no?

There isn't another name in the player pool with greater upside than Newton. Period. Cam is coming off the greatest rookie quarterback campaign in the fantasy era, as he established new NFL rookie records for passing yards in a single-game (432) and season (4,051), plus he set new marks for rushing yards by a first-year quarterback (706) and rushing touchdowns by any QB (14). Newton became the only player in league history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 500 in a single season. His position record for rushing scores should stand for a long, long time, unless Newton himself breaks it.

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Of course there was never actually a convincing, logical argument to select Vick first overall in 2011 — we tried to talk you out of it many times, in many ways — and fantasy drafters need to acknowledge that there's a range of potential outcomes for Newton as he enters his second year. The three quarterbacks who sit atop the position ranks (Rodgers, Brady, Brees) have all delivered exceptional numbers over multiple seasons, they've conquered every defensive scheme, and they've proven their durability. The perceived floor for all three players is very high.

But Newton's ceiling is clearly higher. Hopefully we all learned last season that we should not place limits on Cam's performance potential. He's unlike any other quarterback in today's game.

As a runner, Cam isn't merely another mobile QB who can pile up yardage. He's also his team's primary rushing option at the goal line. Good luck trying to deny the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton if he gets three chances to gain a single yard. Maybe it isn't reasonable to expect another 14 rushing TDs, but I'm not gonna say it can't happen again. There's no way Newton will finish with less than, say, six or seven touchdowns in a healthy season.

And if you're worried about health for some reason ... well, who's gonna hurt Newton? He has edge-rusher size, so you can't really compare him to the (much) more delicate Vick.

As a passer, Newton has the arm strength necessary to maximize Steve Smith's big-play ability, and he adjusted to the pro game ridiculously well in a locked-out year. He was a confident and composed pocket passer who also happened to be a dangerous ball-carrier. He made NFL-quality throws each week, showing not just a rifle arm, but the ability to anticipate and manipulate a defense (< — Jaworski-ism word! Drink!) Newton was only middle-of-the-pack in terms of accuracy, but he still completed a greater percentage of his throws (60.0) than any other member of the rookie quarterback class, plus he topped a few brand-name veterans, including Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco and Vick.

When fantasy experts look for reasons to criticize Cam, they often point to the final six weeks of 2011, when he averaged just 194.3 passing yards per game — far below his full season average of 253.2. But it's incorrect to say that Newton regressed during that end-of-year stretch, or even slowed down. Those final weeks were actually the most successful of the season for both the team and its quarterback. The Panthers closed with a 4-2 record, as Newton posted three 100.0-plus passer ratings and five 20.0-plus fantasy lines. He rushed for five scores over the final six weeks, passed for nine TDs, and cut down on the giveaways, tossing only three picks. If you owned Cam during the most important weeks of the fantasy season, you had zero complaints — especially not in Week 16, when he delivered four touchdowns (three passing, one rush).

Newton's offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, deserves a tip of the cap from the fantasy community, because he had as impressive a season as any coach in the NFL last year. Chudzinski's offense ranked fifth in the league in scoring (25.4 PPG) and seventh in total yards (389.8), despite the fact that he installed a new system on a crazy timeline, with a first-year QB at the controls.

Carolina's receiving corps had only one upper-tier weapon (Smith), yet the team got plenty of mileage out of its tight ends. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey combined for 82 catches, 995 yards and nine TDs last season. (Chudzinski, for the record, is a former tight end himself and longtime position coach). With Shockey no longer in the team picture, Olsen is presumably set up for a big year. He's looking like an excellent draft value right now, as the No. 13 TE off the board (ADP 125.4). New arrival Mike Tolbert, a running back/fullback by trade, is expected to be used as something of a multi-tool, perhaps taking some of those Shockey targets. But the Kool-Aid man has had a quiet preseason thus far.

Smith has been treated for a left foot infection recently, an issue that's sidelined him in camp. Something unlucky and/or bizarre seems to happen to this guy every summer — you might recall the Ken Lucas fight of 2008, or the flag football injury of 2010 — so I'm choosing not to panic about this latest problem. We'll obviously need to monitor Smith's News & Notes page as Week 1 approaches. He's coming off one of the best seasons of his 11-year career (79-1394-7), and remains a terrific deep threat, a coverage nightmare. He's the No. 16 wide receiver selected in an average draft, and he'll remain in the 14-18 range unless the foot falls off.

Brandon LaFell appears to be unrivaled as the Panthers' No. 2 receiver, which gives the third-year receiver some sleeper appeal. He caught 36 passes for 613 yards and three TDs a year ago, and the off-season reports have all been full of sunshine. At LaFell's draft day price (ADP 118.6), you aren't really risking much. Louis Murphy figures to be the team's No. 3 receiver, a role he likely cemented when he caught a TD pass from Newton in Sunday's preseason contest against the Jets.

Carolina's running game was outstanding last year, ranking third in the NFL in yards-per-game (150.5), first in yards-per-carry (5.4), and first in rushing touchdowns (26). However, no individual player ran for more than DeAngelo Williams' 836 yards. Welcome to the age of the committee backfield, gamer. Both Williams and Jonathan Stewart have proven that they can be top-of-the-ranks fantasy weapons when they receive full workloads. But as rotational players, they merely rank as flexes with benefits. And of course Cam poaches short-yardage scores, another problem for this pair. Stewart is the guy to target in PPR leagues; he caught 47 balls last year to Williams' 16. Stewart turned an ankle in the exhibition game at New York and was carted to the locker room, but the injury didn't actually appear to be severe (X-rays negative). J-Stew doesn't miss many games, so there's no obvious reason to fret at this point.

The Panthers defense was laughably bad last season, ranking 27th in the league in points allowed (26.8) and 28th in total yardage (377.6). From a fantasy perspective, we actually like this sort of weakness, because it leads to shootouts. The return of linebacker Jon Beason (Achilles, hamstring) will be a big lift, and first-rounder Luke Kuechly should be a tackling monster, an IDP of interest. James Anderson will find his way onto IDP rosters, too, as will defensive end Charles Johnson.

And then we're done with this group, fantasy-wise. You're not drafting the team DEF, and they don't project as much of an option for streamers, either. If the D can just be adequate, however, this team should contend for a playoff berth.

2011 team stats: 25.4 PPG (NFL rank 5), 150.5 rush YPG (3), 255.6 pass YPG (13), 35.11 yards/drive (6), 0.131 turnovers/drive (18)

Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego, 13. Pittsburgh, 12. Baltimore, 11. Dallas

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