Panthers pressing fantasy questions: Freely open up the coffers for McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey owns plenty of pizzazz to convince even the most sheepish fantasy owner. (AP)
Christian McCaffrey owns plenty of pizzazz to convince even the most sheepish fantasy owner. (AP)
3-Point Stance: Cool on Cam? Don’t overvalue QB

As the mercury rises, Brad Evans and Liz Loza will tackle pressing fantasy questions tied to every NFL team. Read, ponder and get a jump on your offseason research. Friday’s topic: The Carolina Panthers

BELIEVE or MAKE BELIEVE: Shifty rookie Christian McCaffrey at least breaks even at his 38.9 ADP (RB16) and finishes inside the position’s top-20 in PPR and standard leagues.

Liz – MAKE BELIEVE. Likening him to a new model Yamaha this past April, I’m obviously high on McCaffrey’s talent. I don’t, however, believe his situation will immediately showcase his immense talents. The Panthers are attempting to implement a change in offensive philosophy, begging Cam to check down (rather than running and/or chucking) in order to preserve his body. The question is… will Cam listen?

Furthermore, McCaffrey and fellow rookie Curtis Samuel posses overlapping skill sets and could cannibalize each other’s opportunities. Shortly after the draft, Samuel himself said both players would frequently “be in the backfield with Cam.” And then there’s Jonathan Stewart, who averaged 1.6 receiving targets per contest in back-to-back outings as the Panthers’ lead back.

Admittedly, the absence of speed element Ted Ginn (95 targets in 2016) opens things up, but I’m still not sold on McCaffrey’s volume. Ultimately, the Stanford product has the goods to be an elite producer, but evolution takes time. He’s on the RB2/RB3 bubble in twelve-team exercises. FF: 136-593-2 (rushing), 44-458-2 (receiving)

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Brad – BELIEVE. Enough with the Danny Woodhead-McCaffrey comparisons. They’re ignorant and lazy, on a similar plane as saying, when not influenced by various mind-bending substances, White Castle is equal to In and Out. Just stop.

The former Heisman runner up isn’t your average pass-catching safety valve. He’s a magician, a player who seemingly alters time and space with every touch. He’s insanely elusive, lightning quick and generally tough to wrangle in the open field, which is why people connect simple dots. His tacky hands, sharp route running and special teams contributions echo Reggie Bush. But McCaffrey owns multiple tools. In reality, he has more in common with Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson. Though best suited for a zone scheme, he cuts and explodes downhill and gains appreciable yards after contact. He posted a 3.3 YAC with Stanford last year.

Overall, McCaffrey reminds me of throwbacks Thurman Thomas or Charlie Garner. He will inflict heavy damage utilized in several facets. It would be no surprise he eclipses 60 receptions out of the gate, especially on a Carolina team desperate for playmakers and determined to speed up Cam Newton’s throws. Initially, he’ll log 12-15 touches per game until Jonathan Stewart is inevitably taken out by a land-shark bite. When that occurs he could become a certifiable workhorse. Assuming he immediately nets 50-60 percent of the opportunity share, bank on a top-20 contribution no matter format. FF: 153 carries, 632 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 512 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns

After a stupendous 2015, Cam Newton regressed massively last season finishing QB13 in Yahoo fantasy points per game. Will he REBOUND, REGRESS or REMAIN THE SAME this year?

Brad – REMAIN THE SAME. Intelligent owners are cool on Cam. Because he’s shoulder surgery and likely forced into a more pocket-tied role, the rushing numbers that padded his overall value previously will decline.

Despite Dave Gettlemen’s axing, the blueprint to implement quicker throws will remain unchanged. Why? On attempts when he held the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer last year, he ranked dead last among eligible quarterbacks in completion percentage (41.7). To remedy Cam’s inefficiency, Ron Rivera will feature McCaffrey and fellow rookie rocket Curtis Samuel in the pass game. Anticipate more screens, slants and flares instead of long-developing downfield routes (4.4 air yards/att in ’16, QB9). As a result, the passer’s vertical production should improve, but a sudden return to his 2015 ground contributions (636 yards, 10 TDs) is extremely doubtful. Something around 3,600 passing yards, 23 passing TDs with 350 rush yards and 3-4 rush TDs feels right, a borderline top-12 effort.

Liz – REMAIN THE SAME. There’s no denying Newton’s injuries – from getting his bell rung early to tearing his rotator cuff late – negatively affected his output. In fact, I’d argue those physical woes inspired the team’s aforementioned change in offensive philosophy. If the goal is to improve Cam’s accuracy and keep him on the field then adding a cadre of short yardage specialists with dynamic after the catch ability – like McCaffrey and Samuel – makes sense.

Interestingly, Newton was most accurate in 2013 (61.7 completion percentage), which was Steve Smith’s (who has regularly averaged 5.0 air yards per target) final season with the team. In that same year, Newton accrued 24 passing TDs. That, I believe, is Newton’s ceiling for 2017 from a passing perspective. Of course, having young playmakers helps, but attempting to build chemistry with rookies months out from shoulder surgery is a bit of a challenge.

Carolina is in a year of transition. And they want to limit Cam’s exposure to injury. That means checking down more and running less. Yes, he’ll still get his at the goal line, but gone are the days of 100+ rushing attempts. A low-end fantasy starter, Newton is the composite QB10 in Yahoo’s expert rankings.

OVERVALUED/UNDERVALUED/PROPERLY VALUED — Greg Olsen (51.3 ADP, TE4) and Kelvin Benjamin (71.2, WR35).

Liz – UNDERVALUED. Familiarity really does breed contempt. One of the most durable dudes wearing pads, Olsen hasn’t missed a game since 2011. He’s also been a top-five producer at the position for three consecutive seasons and a top-ten TE for the last five. Leading the team in targets three of the past five seasons and averaging 125 looks since 2014, Olsen’s rapport with Cam is evident.

The additions of McCaffrey and Samuel may mean fewer opportunities for the He-Man look-a-like, but his reliability (within the team and the fantasy community) make him an easy lock for over 100 looks. And considering he’s maintained a catch rate of at least 62 percent over his past five campaigns, his floor is a 62-catch season. Last year Jimmy Graham caught 65 balls and finished the year as fantasy’s TE4 overall. A safer option than injury-prone Jordan Reed and Rob Gronkowski, Olsen is a stud whose dominance shouldn’t be taken for granted.

OVERVALUED. More telling than the addition of two pass-catching weapons is that fact that Benjamin’s snap share decreased by over 11 percent in 2016. Averaging fewer than 1 red zone look per outing, the team’s perceived WR1 struggled with efficiency, as evidenced by his catch rate (53.8%). Between jabs about his conditioning from Rivera to the team’s new look, Benjamin’s stock is trending downward. Heavily reliant on touchdowns, he’s just outside of my top-thirty-six WRs.

Brad – UNDERVALUED. Olsen is unbelievably consistent. He’s topped the 1,000-yard mark in three-straight seasons, finished inside the TE top-seven in five consecutive years and hasn’t missed a game since the last, and possibly only time, you watched a Katherine Heigl movie (“Knocked Up” in 2007). He is one of the surest things in football.

With McCaffery and Samuel in tow, it may be tough for him to maintain a targets share above 23 percent. Still, he’s a wrecking ball in traffic (No. 4 in contested catch percentage in ’16), nasty after the catch (No. 3 in yards after catch) and a popular option inside the red zone (23.5% targets share). Roughly 80 catches for 1,000 yards and 5-6 TDs seem inevitable.

OVERVALUED. Don’t bet on a Benjamin bounce back. Ann Coulter has better odds of reaching diamond status with Delta. He owns buttery hands (53.9 catch% in ’16), is easily upended after the catch (No. 49 in YAC) and is largely TD dependent. With added mouths to feed in Carolina’s offense, he is destined for a final ranking outside the position’s top-36. And you always have to worry about weight issues. He trimmed down this offseason, but he’s one eating binge away from tipping the scales at three bills. I prefer Jeremy Maclin, Cameron Meredith or Eric Decker a round or three later.

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