Juggernaut Index, No. 13: Panthers add McCaffrey to Cam's toy chest

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From the moment Cam Newton entered the league in 2011, he was an unfair fantasy asset. His first game featured a pair of long TD tosses to Steve Smith and a one-yard TD plunge. He finished the day with 422 passing yards, destroying the all-time record for first-game yardage. Fantasy experts cautioned you not to another performance quite like that, not from a rookie QB.

Then, in Cam’s second pro game, he passed for 432 yards, rushed for 53 and delivered another two scores.

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And so it went. Even when the yards weren’t there, the touchdowns kept piling up. By the end of the year, he owned the records for rookie passing yards (4051) and for single-season rushing TDs by a quarterback (14). He was the third highest-coring fantasy QB of 2011. Owning Cam in fantasy was essentially like owning a combo QB2/RB2.

Again, unfair.

Newton is now entering his seventh pro season, however, and he’s a high-mileage player. He has a significant ankle injury on his medical chart, and he underwent rotator cuff surgery back in March. It certainly doesn’t help that Cam has never received the Brady-Rodgers-Brees treatment from NFL officials. That is, you can do stuff like this to him, and it often goes unpenalized.

Cam is coming off his worst season in terms of passer-rating (75.8), completion percentage (52.9), yards per attempt (6.88) and rushing yards (359) — all the stuff you care about, basically. We think he’s on track to start the season-opener against the Niners. He’s been throwing in camp, though not entirely without fatigue and pain. This year, the team has added a few short-range receiving weapons, notably rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. The Panthers offense will emphasize quick throws, designed to protect Cam, move chains and get the ball to dynamic playmakers with room to operate. Over the past five years, no Carolina running back has caught more than 27 passes in any single season, but McCaffrey has a clear shot at 50-plus in 2017.

Newton has never been known for his accuracy or touch, of course, but, if the scheme changes stick, he’s a good bet to complete 60 percent of his throws for the first time since 2013. Cam’s offseason comments suggest that he intends to keep running the ball, but the coaching staff isn’t as eager to see him absorb many hits as a ball-carrier. This from Ron Rivera, via SI:

“Now [Newton] is at that point in his career where everything we do with him we have to do judicially if he’s going to run the ball. It has to be the right situation and circumstances. We have to be aware of that. He’s not that young guy that we can throw out there and say, ‘Go do your thing.’ He’s now that veteran, crafty guy.”

It really doesn’t seem reasonable to forecast more than 400-450 rushing yards (with 4-6 rushing scores) from Cam in the season ahead, yet it’s also not crazy to hope for a 4000-yard passing season. Newton is typically drafted as the ninth QB off the board in Yahoo leagues (ADP 74.8), which is a bit too expensive for me. I’d prefer Big Ben or Cousins a few spots later (78.4, 88.8), or any of the various late-round options beyond the top-100 picks (Rivers, Dalton, Tyrod, Palmer, et al.)

Ultimately, we can expect Cam’s season-long value to hinge on two things that are tricky to predict: 1) how often he calls his own number at the goal-line, and 2) the health of a thin-but-skilled receiving corps.

Greg Olsen leads a top-heavy collection of receivers

What we like best about the Carolina receivers, at least for fantasy purposes, is that so few of them are likely to see significant volume. This team completed 306 passes last season, 197 of which went to three players. For the second straight year, Olsen led the Panthers in targets (127), receptions (80) and receiving yards (1073). He’s delivered at least 75 catches and 1000 yards in each of the past three seasons, establishing himself as arguably the game’s most bankable, reliable tight end. Olsen hasn’t missed a game in nine years, an absurd record of durability. He’s the third tight end off the board in an average Yahoo draft (ADP 44.4), which of course is perfectly reasonable. Olsen is 32 years old, entering a contract year, and he’s a preferred target for Newton. He was curiously touchdown-challenged last season (3), but he’s seen 35 red-zone chances over the past two years. Prior to 2016, he’d given us three straight seasons with at least a half-dozen spikes. He’s a guy you simply draft, start and ride throughout the season, without hesitation.

Kelvin Benjamin is another year removed from his ACL repair, and he’s already established himself as a 1000-yard receiver. His conditioning was a concern early in the offseason, but fitness hasn’t been an issue in camp…

Benjamin found the end-zone in the preseason opener and generally looked like his usual gigantic self, a player who’s functionally open even when DBs are with him stride for stride. He’s been drop-prone in the past, a problem he’s unlikely to conquer anytime soon, but, like Olsen, he’s built rapport with his quarterback. Benjamin seems like a relative bargain at WR30, his current draft price (ADP 79.2). Despite the flaws in his game, he’s clearly in line for 130-or-so targets in a healthy season. He’s found the end-zone 16 times in 32 career games, so we can reasonably expect 8-10 touchdowns in 2017.

Ted Ginn Jr. has relocated within the NFC South, joining the Saints, and his departure leaves 95 targets up for grabs. Some of those chances clearly will go to McCaffrey, but the team is also banking on an increase in production (and thus fantasy relevance) from third-year receiver Devin Funchess. He’s a classic last-year’s-sleeper, now well-positioned for a jump in value. He ran exclusively with the varsity in the preseason opener, and he’s been a buzzy player in camp. All things considered, Funchess isn’t such a bad final-round flier. It wouldn’t be much of a shock if he delivered 6-8 TDs, if Carolina’s offense can return to a 2015-ish level. Remember, the Panthers are only a year removed from leading the NFL in scoring at 31.3 PPG.

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Russell Shepard signed a three-year deal with Carolina in the offseason, but he’s nowhere near Olsen, Benjamin or McCaffrey in the receiving hierarchy. Shepard should be left alone in all but the deepest leagues (think 18 or more teams). This team used a second-round pick on explosive Ohio State playmaker Curtis Samuel, but he’s a developmental prospect who was sidelined by hamstring issues for much of camp. He’s a fun player for dynasty leaguers, a highlight specialist with 4.31 speed. But it’s tough to forecast a meaningful role for Samuel in the early weeks; he’s lost a significant chunk of practice time, and he never profiled as a plug-and-play guy. Still, Samuel is going to eventually emerge as a dangerous weapon from the slot, a brutal coverage assignment. As with Funchess, he’s not such a bad late flier.

Finally, the truly fun stuff…

Christian McCaffrey can do it all. Everything.

The discussion taking place in fantasy circles about Jonathan Stewart’s impact on Christian McCaffrey feels like the “Chester Taylor or Adrian Peterson?” conversation from 2007. I don’t mean to compare McCaffrey to Peterson stylistically — the right comp for CMC is probably LeSean McCoy — but I do mean to imply that he’s a rare talent, even by NFL standards. His combine performance was basically superhuman, particularly in the agility drills. McCaffrey ran the three-cone in 6.57 seconds, easily leading all players at his position (and beating Dalvin Cook by nearly a full second). His collegiate highlight reel is ridiculous — like he’s Vader at the end of “Rogue One” and Pac-12 defenders are random rebels.

Get yourself a share or two of McCaffrey, you guys. Especially in PPR. He’s going to be a blast. He has pretty much every trait you can hope for in a featured runner: suddenness, long speed, patience, explosion, exceptional instincts and receiving skills. McCaffrey ran between the tackles regularly at Stanford and routinely saw eight or more defenders in the box … and still he was unstoppable. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry and 12.2 per catch in his three collegiate seasons. He’s a star. Again: You want him.

You’ve probably seen the clip of McCaffrey abusing an All-Pro linebacker in practice, but just in case…

Jonathan Stewart might very well be lined up in the backfield on Carolina’s first snap in Week 1, but that’s hardly a concern for McCaffrey zealots. It’s become brutally obvious that CMC will be a big part of this team’s offense, a chess piece to be deployed in various ways. Both Stewart and McCaffrey will have fantasy value in the year ahead, and both have a shot at 200-plus touches. If you can’t imagine CMC producing 1200 scrimmage yards as a rookie, then … well, then you don’t deserve him. The trendy thing to say is that McCaffrey is overpriced at his third or fourth-round ADP (32.5), but I’m buying. This is not your standard-issue rookie back

As for Stewart, he’s a decent bargain outside the top-100 picks (ADP 113.8). He wasn’t particularly good on a per-carry basis last season (3.8 YPC), but he handled 226 touches (only 8 catches) and scored nine touchdowns. J-Stew could see another 175-or-so carries this season, including goal-line work. He belongs in the flex conversation for yet another year.

Carolina’s D is still legit.

The Panthers defense was a top-five fantasy unit last season, despite ranking bottom-third in yards and points allowed. Sacks and takeaways drive fantasy scoring, and Carolina finished near the top of the league in both categories (47 sacks, 27 turnovers). Kuechly is the essential player on this D, a tackling machine who deserves to be among the first IDPs off the board. He’s dealt with concussions in recent seasons, which is no small issue, but he’s healthy at the moment. (McCaffrey embarrassed him, but didn’t completely ruin him. We think.)

Carolina’s schedule is a minefield, we should note, because the division doesn’t offer any friendly matchups. It helps that one of the two Atlanta games is in Week 17, when no responsible fantasy league is in action. But this team still has to contend with both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers this season, in addition to the usual visits with Brees, Ryan and Winston. If you draft the Panthers D/ST, don’t think of ’em as an every-week play.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 23.1 (15)
Pass YPG – 230.3 (21)
Rush YPG – 113.4 (10)
Yards per play – 5.2 (22)
Plays per game – 65.8 (9)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver, 23) Jacksonville, 22) Buffalo, 21) Philadelphia, 20) Miami, 19) Indianapolis, 18) Kansas City, 17) Washington, 16) NY Giants, 15) Tennessee, 14) LA Chargers, 13) Carolina

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