|By Mark Morales-Smith, Saturday, July 26, 2014|
QB Cam Newton - Solid/Safe Pick
Cam Newton is coming back from offseason ankle surgery and he is expected to be 100-percent by late June to early July. The ankle should have no effect on his play. A lot has been made of Newton's receiving corps (or lack thereof). They are really not that bad and he has a few of veterans who know how to get open. Cotchery, Underwood, and Avant have all performed very well in limited opportunities. None of them are a true No. 1 receiver; however, each can make a play when called upon. He also has young receivers Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt. Both have upside and showed some of that during last year's preseason, Neither have amounted to anything just yet and both ended up buried on the bench. The Panthers' top pass-catcher may be tight end Greg Olsen, whom they backed up with Ed Dickson for insurance. Carolina also drafted Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State with their first round pick. He is a huge target that can pull the ball down out of a crowd. When Newton's in trouble, Benjamin is a guy that can be thrown to even when covered. Newton can also leans on a stable of running backs. It goes without saying that Newton may be the best running QB in the league, especially in the red zone. His size allows him to do a lot more between the tackles than a Mike Vick or RG3 can. This may be the year Newton really pulls away from the pack as a superstar; he'll just need his passing stats to pick up where his rushes end.
Editor's note: Leagues which reward six points for passing TDs slightly reduce the value of dual-threat QBs like Newton.
RB DeAngelo Williams - Bye Week Fill-in
THE NOT VERY GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY: DeAngelo Williams had some very strong fantasy years back in the day. He has been trapped in a two-back system with Jonathan Stewart since 2009, although J-Stew is rarely healthy enough to compete. Williams peaked in 2008 when he rushed for over 1,500 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. That may as well be a million years ago. Over the past three seasons, Williams is averaging about 800 yards and six TDs per season. Now 31 years old, he is stuck in a very crowded backfield. He will be battling a somewhat rejuvenated Stewart, touchdown vulture Mike Tolbert, second-year runner Kenjon Barner, and Cam Newton for carries. With his role unknown and a cast of characters supplanting him based on down and distance, Williams is a flex play at best, with a touch more upside in PPR scoring.
RB Jonathan Stewart - Bust (overvalued)
After missing just about all of 2013 due to a toe injury, Jonathan Stewart is reportedly the healthiest he has been since 2011. He must now prove he can stay healthy over a 16-game season. Stewart has been the "two" in a one-two punch combination with DeAngelo Willliams. The backfield is a little more crowded now though. Even if healthy, his rushing yards will be limited by the presence of Williams, Mike Tolbert, Cam Newton and perhaps the occasional carry from Kenjon Barner. Stewart does add some PPR value because he is the Panthers' best pass-catcher out of the backfield. Don't expect many TDs since the Panthers prefer to use Tolbert and Newton from up close. Stewart has limited value across all formats.
RB Mike Tolbert - Deep-league Only
Mike Tolbert looks more like a competitive eater than a NFL running back, but don't be fooled; the man can play. He is quick for his size and very tough around the goal-line. His ceiling for rushing yards is 250 at most, but he is a perfect desperation bye week add off the waiver wire. The phrase "touchdown vulture" was created specifically for Tolbert. Having a guy that can find the end zone is never a bad thing. He is least unsettled by the crowded backfield because he has his niche and the only teammate he is in competition with is Cam Newton. Cross your fingers if you start Tolbert, though. He doesn't score that often.
RB Kenjon Barner - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
Barner looked very good last preseason before injuring his ankle. He never worked his way back into a crowded rotation, but Jonathan Stewart has had numerous health issues and DeAngelo Williams is now 31 years old. This parting of the seas could open the door for Barner. The second-year back out of Oregon may be a dark horse, so don't let him fall off your radar in dynasty leagues. If this kid gets a shot this season, he may just make the most of it. Barner is a deep sleeper in redraft and a dynasty staple. Things must break in his favor; nonetheless, he has a real shot to be the Panthers' lead back very soon.
WR Kelvin Benjamin - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
DYNASTY IMPACT ROOKIE: Kelvin Benjamin is the Panthers' first round pick out of Florida State. He is a huge target that can pull the ball down out of a crowd. When Cam Newton's in trouble, Benjamin is a guy that can be thrown to even when draped by a defender. Benjamin is expected to win the job as the Panthers' No. 1 receiver and is poised to have a big fantasy season. He is in the best situation of any rookie receiver. Expect a high volume of catches (particularly from red zone targets). With the Seminoles, Benjamin scored 15 TDs. Given his length, Newton can just throw it up and allow the rookie to come down with it.
WR Jason Avant - Low Potential
Early reports from the Panthers state that Jason Avant (along with veteran Jerricho Cotchery) is expected to win the starting receiving job. Avant has had less success than Cotchery in his career, but has been a dependable receiver when called upon in many years with the Philadelphia Eagles. He has caught more than 50 passes three times in his career, despite never having been been a consistent starter. If he does win a starting job while fending off rookie Kelvin Benjamin from the lineup, Avant must be considered a relevant fantasy option until he proves otherwise.
WR Tiquan Underwood - Not Draft Worthy
Underwood is a talented receiver the Panthers picked up from Tampa in the offseason. The New Jersey native caught 24 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. His numbers don't jump out, but he did show some flashes. Early reports are that Underwood is not expected to win a starting job. Unless he can somehow start in this offense, Underwood is not draft worthy. His competition is far from unbeatable considering most of them have been backups for most of their careers.
WR Jerricho Cotchery - Deep-league Only
Last year as a third option in Pittsburgh, Cotchery put together a very solid year. Cotchery caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 TDs. It's still early, but reports out of Panthers camp are that Cotchery is expected to win a starting spot at receiver along with rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Former Eagles receiver Jason Avant is Cotchery's only stiff competition and that's not saying much. Now in his 11th season, Cotchery is a serviceable weapon and a viable red zone target. We are not yet sure exactly what his role will be in the Panthers offense, but it has a chance to be his biggest opportunity since leaving the Jets in 2010. Cotchery is a guy to keep an eye on this preseason; he may have a lot more fantasy value than he's currently getting credit for in all formats. It is always possible he develops great chemistry with Newton. Let Cotchery prove that first before investing a pick on this former North Carolina State alumnus.
Editor's note: The receivers to own on this team are either tight end Greg Olsen or the aforementioned rookie Benjamin. Cotchery's 10 TDs last season were as many as he had over his last four seasons. Add to that the fact that he is 32 years old and if you see an opportunity here instead of a series of red flags, you must really re-evaluate your fantasy preferences.
TE Greg Olsen - Solid/Safe Pick
Olsen caught 73 passes for 816 yards in 2013. The only thing holding him back from being an elite tight end is a lack of touchdowns throughout the years. The former Miami Hurricanes pass-catcher comes into the season as Newton's most reliable and trustworthy option. Olsen's targets, catches and yards may very well rise even higher. The additions of rookie Kelvin Benjamin and veteran Jerricho Cotchery may only hurt his touchdown opportunities. That, coupled with Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton's goal-line running, does not bode well for Olsen getting into the end zone more often this season. Even without much touchdown production, Olsen is a Top 10 tight end and should be drafted as a starter across all formats.
Editor's note: Olsen's popularity as a mid-ranged TE1 is likely to grow. The concussion concerns for Washington's Jordan Reed, the advanced age of Dallas' Jason Witten and the presence and addition of Baltimore's Owen Daniels taking looks away from Dennis Pitta are all negative points of view. Detroit's Eric Ebron is an unproven rookie, Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph has a shaky QB situation and the list goes on. On the other hand, Olsen figures to be an even larger part of an offense which lacks a desirable backfield or any reliable receiver.
TE Ed Dickson - Low Potential
Dickson looked like a promising young tight end after catching 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens back in 2011. Now Dickson will look to revive his career after back-to-back disastrous seasons for his former employer. Dickson was expected to be the Ravens' top tight end in 2013 after Dennis Pitta went down with a hip injury in the preseason. Dickson did not step up to the plate. This may be Dickson's last real shot to be a contributor. He has shown before he is capable of being a very good player, yet after recent shortcomings, he must prove it again to the league and to the Panthers.
PK Graham Gano - Quality Backup
Gano was very accurate in 2013; he converted 24-of-27 and his longest made was 55 yards. He also added 42 extra points. Gano's career long is 59 yards, so he has a good leg with range. The problem for Gano is that Carolina does not have a high-powered offense. What also works against him is the Panthers' effective red-zone offense. Gano doesn't get all that many opportunities. The Panthers will have a lot of new faces on offense in 2014, so improved offensive efficiency is a possibility. With more opportunities, Gano could outplay his ranking and perhaps be a fantasy starter.
Carolina - Stud (low risk)
The Panthers had a dominant defense in 2013. The unit could be expected to improve this upcoming season. Their dynamic front seven was able to completely mask an average secondary. The Panthers were excellent against the run and flat-out pass rush. In his rookie season, Star Lotulelei clogged up the holes, while ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson chased down QBs. The Panthers have a sure-tackling group of linebackers led by budding superstar Luke Kuechly. Their best defensive back-- Captain Munnerlyn-- left for Minnesota, so their new look secondary is a question mark. The biggest concern when drafting the Panthers' DST is that they have to play both the Falcons and Saints twice. Those are some tough matchups. No matter which way you slice it, the Panthers have an impressive young defense that is a must-draft in all formats.