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Fantasy Football NFC South Preview: Carolina Panthers

The Panthers finished first in the NFC South in 2013, but that didn't exactly make them popular in fantasy circles. Spoiler: that won't change in 2014.

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Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The most consistent aspect of the NFC South is the fact that the division is inconsistent. No NFC South team has ever repeated as division champions. The Carolina Panthers have won the division in 2003, 2008 and 2013. Just wait another five years and they'll be on top again.

After a 7-9 season in 2012, the Panthers made a huge turnaround to go 12-4 last year. But when your defense is paving the way to wins, fantasy football points aren't really off the charts. Cam Newton finished as the No. 3 fantasy quarterback in standard leagues. Aside from him, the Panthers didn't provide owners a ton of value. Expect the same in 2014.

Notable offseason additions: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Ed Dickson

Notable offseason losses: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon

Yet again Newton will be working with a sub-par receiving corps. What's new? The Panthers needed a first-round receiver, so they grabbed Benjamin. He's a promising rookie, but the rest of the group look grim.

Quarterbacks: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb, Matt Blanchard

Newton's first three years in the NFL have been impressive from a fantasy perspective. He's finished third, fourth and third respectively among quarterbacks in standard leagues. Yet most fantasy rankings this preseason don't even have him in the top five at his position. There are a few factors are play here.

  • Left tackle Jordan Gross and guard Geoff Hangartner retired. The Panthers aren't sure who will protect Newton's blindside yet. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler are in the running for the job, two unappealing options.
  • Newton underwent ankle surgery this offseason and is still working his way back. He hopes to be at full strength by training camp, but it's still a situation to monitor.
  • His receiving corps is completely revamped aside from tight end Greg Olsen. He's never had the best receiving corps to work with, but this group is sub-par awful to say the least.
When you take it all into account, there aren't many reasons for optimism here. But Newton looked sharp even with LaFell and Ginn last year. He will rush for at least 500 yards again. He'll add goal-line rushing touchdowns to his numbers. Newton rushed 11 times in goal-to-go situations in 2013. He scored all six of his rushing touchdowns on these plays. Please, Carolina, let Cam have the ball at the goal line.

It's concerning to see he doesn't have a proven No. 1 WR, but Newton is still going to be a top 10 quarterback. This is not the year to overpay, though. As for his backups, if Newton were to miss time, there would be no point in starting whoever's under center for Carolina.

Running backs: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Kenjon Barner, Mike Tolbert

Ah, the Carolina backfield. A beloved group by fantasy owners. The running back by committee approach isn't going away, and that alone should continue to keep owners hesitant to draft any of these players.

Williams finished as the No. 22 fantasy running back in 2013. Stewart was hurt, again, leaving Williams to take on more of a feature back role. He'll remain in the driver's seat heading into 2014.

Williams is now 31. His career is approaching its end, and he's never too appealing for owners. Last season Williams took 13 carries in goal-to-go situations. He went 0-for-13 in finding the end zone. Mike Tolbert scored four touchdowns in 12 goal-to-go carries. With Newton and Tolbert providing far more goal-line value, Williams is never going to see an uptick in touchdowns.

The only promising stat from Williams' 2013 campaign was his improvement in the receiving game. He led the NFL in yards per reception (12.8) among running backs, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Williams gained an average of 15.1 yards after the catch and finished with his highest reception total (26) since 2009.

He's worth a late-round pick, but there is little upside here with his age and role in the offense. Stewart has played in 15 games over the past two seasons. He's rarely healthy, and he's been ineffective when he has managed to get on the field. His absence has been the best aid to Williams' numbers.

Stewart is going undrafted in most mock drafts. His ankle and knee injuries have plummeted his value on the last two years. Now might be the time to finally buy, if you're willing to use a roster spot on him. You could add Stewart as your last pick in the draft, getting a back with RB1 value if he can finally stay healthy. That's a big if, but it comes with zero risk.

Wide receivers: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant, Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt

A few things to note about rookie wide receivers before we go too in-depth with Benjamin.

  • Only five rookie receivers have caught 70-plus passes over the last 10 years: Eddie Royal, Michael Clayton, Keenan Allen, Dwayne Bowe and Marques Colston. Probably not five you would expect to see on that short list.
  • Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Williams were the only rookie wideouts to start all 16 games in that span.
Projecting rookie receiver stats is a tough game. The position is one of the toughest to acclimate to in the NFL. It's a learning process, but owners still like to reach for those rookie receivers in redraft leagues because, hey, they were outstanding in college, they'll keep dominating in the pros right away!

Rookie receivers CAN beat the learning curve. In 2013 we saw Allen catch 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns with the Chargers, and he didn't start two games. What's a reasonable projection for Benjamin?

Benjamin has a few luxuries that other rookie receivers have not enjoyed. First, he's huge. At 6-foot-5, Benjamin has the ability to dominate with his size. While rookie wideouts have an adjustment period, Benjamin can win immediately in jump-ball situations.

Second, he literally has no competition for a starting job. Look at who he's going up against.

Player Age Most receptions in season Most TDs in a season
Jason Avant 31 53 3
Jerricho Cotchery 32 82 (2007) 10
Tiquan Underwood 27 28 4

A stellar group to say the least. Cotchery put in a few good seasons years ago with the Jets. He exploded onto the scene as a red-zone threat in 2013 with the Steelers, but there is absolutely no way he'll repeat 10 touchdowns. Underwood is nothing special. Avant is less than nothing special. Benjamin is going to see starter reps from Week 1.

Jon Moore at RotoViz examined Benjamin's rookie potential. He noted that Benjamin scored more than 10 touchdowns in his final college season, and he decided to track other receivers who accomplished the same feat since 2006. The average production from that group in their rookie years in the NFL is 6.5 fantasy points per game (standard scoring).

Benjamin can exceed that mean due to the fact that: A) he's starting immediately with the first-string offense and B) he has the size to become a reliable scoring threat, especially in the red zone. The Panthers need to utilize his size. Benjamin is being drafted as a WR43 on average in mocks. Owners should hope his stock doesn't rise much more. He's a steal this late in the draft.

Cotchery might be worth adding if Benjamin gets hurt. Otherwise, I can't see the Panthers passing game turning multiple receivers into fantasy difference makers.

Tight ends: Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Mike McNeil

If you absolutely HAVE to own a Panthers player, Olsen might be the guy you want. He finished as a top 10 tight end in each of the past two years. This year comes with the hope of top-five potential.

Olsen's receptions have increased each year since he arrived in Charlotte. Last year he posted a career-high 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns. Per PFF, Olsen ranked No. 23 overall among all receivers (wideouts and tight ends) in end-zone targets with 11. Newton is looking for his starting tight end more often near the goal line, and with a completely new receiving corps, he'll continue to rely on the only receiver he has a developed rapport with.

Olsen was also targeted 14 times on passes 20-plus yards downfield, tying for third overall among tight ends. He's seeing more targets in the end zone and more deep targets. Newton needs him to step up in 2014.

ESPN's David Newton reported the Panthers were running "a lot of two tight end formations" at OTAs. Dickson was overshadowed in Baltimore, and while he shouldn't be on your fantasy radar right now, it's a situation worth monitoring. He might be a better bet than Avant or Underwood. Add him immediately if Olsen misses time.

Bottom line

The Panthers frustrate fantasy owners with their backfield and their lack of standout receivers. Newton and Olsen will be top 10 players at their positions. Aside from those two, the value is slim everywhere else. Benjamin will pay off if he falls past Round 9 or 10 in your draft.