Juggernaut Index, No. 4: The Carolina Panthers

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Andy Behrens
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Cam Newton is a unique fantasy weapon, leading a terrific offense. He's clearly the top QB in our game. (Getty Images)
Cam Newton is a unique fantasy weapon, leading a terrific offense. He’s clearly the top QB in our game. (Getty Images)

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking and review of NFL teams for fantasy purposes — repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here we concern ourselves with a franchise’s likely contributions to the fantasy player pool. We are not concerned with projected wins and losses. Instead, we’re focused on yards and points. As always, we’re beginning with the league’s least useful teams, working our way toward the elite fantasy juggernauts.

[Join a Yahoo Fantasy Football league for free and make 2016 your season!]

Cam Newton finished second in the NFL in passing touchdowns last season and fifth in rushing scores. That seems like a thing players might have done routinely in the league’s distant past — back when teams ran the single-wing and tailbacks kicked extra-points — but it’s a little crazy that it’s happening now. These days, it feels almost unfair.

On rushing stats alone, Newton scored more fantasy points last year than C.J. Anderson, Thomas Rawls and Jeremy Langford. On pure passing stats, he beat Matt Ryan, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Tannehill. Essentially, when you own Cam in fantasy, you’re filling a single roster spot with a combination QB2/RB2.

Again: unfair.

It should go without saying that Newton is the no-doubt unrivaled No. 1 fantasy quarterback for 2016. He’s never finished outside the top-eight at his position in per-game fantasy scoring in any of his five seasons. Newton produced a career-high in passing scores last year (35) while limiting his interceptions (10) and boosting his average yards-per-attempt to 7.8. He also continued to function as his team’s primary goal-line rusher, finding the end-zone 10 times. If any other quarterback is selected ahead of Cam in a league with standard settings, the pick deserves an eye roll and immediate in-draft derision.

Newton’s receiving corps gets an upgrade with the return of Kelvin Benjamin, who returns after a season lost to ACL recovery. Benjamin will be nearly 13 months removed from the injury when the year opens, plus he played throughout the preseason (6 REC, 61 yards), so there are no reasons to be unusually worried. Yes, he could very well play on a snap-count in the early weeks (not surprising), and he reportedly struggled with conditioning in camp after the long rehab (also not surprising). But Benjamin had a terrific first season with the Panthers (73-1008-9) and, at 6-foot-5, he’s a huge target with serious wingspan, a great fit with Cam. I’m happy to take the post-injury discount on Benjamin; he has a great shot at catching double-digit TDs in the year ahead. Keep him on the bench in Week 1, however, with Carolina opening the season on the road against Denver’s secondary.

At this point, I’m supposed to tell you to keep an eye on sleeper receiver Devin Funchess, a player coming off a ludicrously buzzy offseason. But I gotta say, I have been a consistent Funchess skeptic, having perhaps seen too much of his collegiate career. He definitely has appealing size (6-foot-4), but he’s not quick, his hands aren’t special and he’s hardly dominant on contested balls. If he’s a breakout player in 2016, he’ll be another owner’s success story. Someone always likes Funchess a lot more than I do, in every draft.

Kelvin Benjamin, back in our fantasy lives. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Kelvin Benjamin, back in our fantasy lives. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Ted Ginn remains in the mix for Carolina, playing ahead of Funchess in two-receiver sets, and he’s coming off by far the most productive season of his nine-year career. Ginn hauled in 44 passes for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns last season on 96 targets, while also offering his usual array of breathtaking drops I cannot recommend actually watching Ginn play, but I do expect useful fantasy numbers by the end of the season. His deep speed certainly pairs well with Newton’s unlimited arm strength. If Ginn could only catch things reliably, he … well, he would be a very different player. You know what you’re getting with Ginn. I like him well enough as a late-draft selection.

Greg Olsen will likely lead the Panthers in receptions for a fourth straight season, and you can expect him to see another 110-or-so targets. Olsen has produced back-to-back 1000-yard campaigns and he hasn’t missed a game over the past eight seasons. Basically, he’s as reliable as any name in the fantasy player pool. Don’t let him fall outside the top-three tight ends in your draft. Olsen doesn’t necessarily have the statistical ceiling of Gronk or Jordan Reed, but his medical file isn’t nearly as messy.

No one seemed to like Jonathan Stewart in drafts this summer, so I own pretty much all the J-Stew fantasy shares, and it cost next to nothin’. Stewart is clearly over the foot issue that lingered following the Super Bowl, so that’s not a concern. He looked just fine in the preseason, carrying six times for 33 yards, plus the man gave us 1088 scrimmage yards and seven scores last year. Stewart’s tape is always solid and he’s tied to the league’s highest scoring offense. We know he’s a perfectly fine pass-catcher — he had 47 receptions back in 2011 — but Carolina rarely threw to running backs last season. Panthers backs combined for only 63 targets in 2015. So no PPR bump for J-Stew. Mike Tolbert is still around to poach a few inside-the-5 touches, but Cameron Artis-Payne remains the direct backup to Stewart. Neither Tolbert or CAP are on the draft radar in leagues of typical size, obviously.

The Panthers defense is anchored by Luke Kuechly, one of the game’s best tacklers and coverage linebackers. He’s an elite IDP, no question. Thomas Davis is excellent as well. Carolina’s run defense was excellent last year, allowing just 3.9 YPC and 88.4 YPG, and there’s no reason to expect that to change in the coming season. The team’s secondary, however, will obviously miss corner Josh Norman, as well as the retired Charles Tillman. We’re still drafting this D/ST, of course, but not with the enthusiasm we might have had with Norman’s name on the depth chart. It’s tough not to like Carolina’s D in the opener, facing Denver’s placeholder QB, Trevor Siemian.

2015 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 31.3 (4)
Pass YPG – 224.3 (24)
Rush YPG – 142.6 (2)
Yards per play – 5.5 (15)
Plays per game – 66.6 (8)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Cleveland, 31) San Francisco, 30) Philadelphia, 29) Baltimore, 28) Tennessee, 27) Los Angeles, 26) Miami, 25) Detroit, 24) Chicago, 23) San Diego, 22) Minnesota, 21) Tampa Bay, 20) Atlanta, 19) Washington, 18) Buffalo, 17) Kansas City, 16) Oakland, 15) NY Giants, 14) Indianapolis, 13) Jacksonville, 12) Houston, 11) Denver, 10) NY Jets, 9) Dallas, 8) Cincinnati, 7) New England 6) New Orleans, 5) Seattle, 4) Carolina