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2012 Fantasy outlooks: Carolina Panthers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Fantasy owners want to know only one thing about Cam Newton this year: Can he do it again?

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As a rookie last season, Newton was a star. He owned the NFL from the minute he stepped on the field, passing for 400-plus yards in his first two games. He would go on to have a record-breaking year with 4,051 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions on 60 percent completions with 706 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He easily won rookie of the year honors.

Newton had five games with at least 30 Fantasy points in a standard league and 11 games with at least 22 points. He finished the season as the No. 5 Fantasy quarterback at 394 points, and he averaged 24.6 points a week. Only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford were better.

In looking at Newton this year, you can expect some changes in his production. He should improve on his passing touchdowns. Unheralded quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez (26) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (24) threw more touchdowns, and Newton will get better at passing in the red zone as his knowledge of the game improves. He also vows to cut down on his 17 interceptions.

But Newton should also see his rushing touchdowns decline, especially with the addition of fullback Mike Tolbert. The Panthers likely don't want to see Newton forcing his way through piles at the goal line if they can avoid it, and he will lose production there. He should still run at a quality clip, but the touchdown total should drop.

Overall, his stats should equal out to some degree, and he will remain an elite Fantasy quarterback. We would draft Newton as early as Round 2 once Rodgers, Brees and Brady come off the board.

One thing to note with Newton is his production against teams from the NFC South. He averaged 25 Fantasy points a game against his division opponents, including a whopping 38 points against Tampa Bay.

Fantasy Value Chart
Player Draft Day value Estimated round
Quarterbacks
Cam Newton 2
Running Backs
Jonathan Stewart 7
DeAngelo Williams 8
Mike Tolbert 10
Wide Receivers
Steve Smith 4
Brandon LaFell 11
David Gettis ND
Armanti Edwards ND
Tight Ends
Greg Olsen 13
Kickers/Defense
Olindo Mare ND
Panthers DST ND
ND - not expected to get drafted

Sleeper ... Brandon LaFell, wide receiver
This could be the year LaFell breaks out for the Panthers. His yardage and touchdown production rose in his second year (613 yards, three touchdowns), as did his playing time. With his reps and workload expected to increase again this year, which is his third year in the NFL, his numbers should follow. Here's the best part: LaFell will work in the same offense as last season with a dynamic quarterback in Newton and opposite stud receiver Steve Smith. We could see the 6-foot-2 receiver take advantage of single coverage quite a bit as he progresses, and he could be a star with a late-round pick. He's one to watch this preseason -- if he gets a lot of reps with the first-team offense, he'll be a candidate to play well. We wouldn't argue with owners who take LaFell with a late-round pick, as this could be his best year in the NFL.

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Bust ... All the Panthers running backs
I don't want any of Carolina's running backs on my Fantasy team in 2012. The addition of Tolbert makes this backfield even more of a headache, especially when you factor in Newton and his rushing prowess. Jonathan Stewart is the best of the bunch, and he would have plenty of upside in a contract year on any other team. But with DeAngelo Williams and Stewart sharing the majority of carries, Tolbert likely working at the goal line and also catching passes with Stewart, only an injury could save this backfield. I would only settle for Stewart with a late-round pick, and I would try to avoid drafting Williams and Tolbert altogether.

Late-round flier ... Greg Olsen, tight end
Olsen's first season with the Panthers in 2011 was met with mixed reviews. He started off the season playing well with at least seven Fantasy points in five of his first eight games. But he limped to the finish line with only one game with more than two Fantasy points after Week 9. Jeremy Shockey cut into much of Olsen's production in the second half along with injuries, but Shockey is not expected to return to the Panthers. That should allow Olsen to see a spike in targets from the 89 he had last year (Shockey had 62). Keep in mind that when Shockey left the Saints Jimmy Graham had a breakout year with 99 catches, 1,310 yards and 13 touchdowns. We don't expect Olsen to come close to those stats, but if he can stay healthy he has the chance to produce at a high level. He is worth drafting with a late-round pick in deeper leagues, and he is definitely someone to monitor as a waiver-wire addition.

Schedule breakdown

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
@TB NO NYG @ATL SEA bye DAL @CHI @WAS DEN TB @PHI @KC ATL @SD OAK @NO
We're not sure if the Panthers can compete for a playoff berth, but the schedule should be favorable for Newton. No more than two road games will result in big pass pressure on the big quarterback, and several home games against dynamite offenses should force him to throw and run and not hand off. There are some challenging matchups for the Panthers' run game over the course of the year but the bigger worry remains how they'll split reps, not who they'll play.

Training camp topics

I got the chance to talk to Smith in April and he told me that he's using boxing to train this offseason. "To stay in shape, it's always tough," Smith, 32, said. "You always have to come up with new, creative ways to engage your mind and also your body. Your body gets used to the same routine over and over and over, so you have to adjust. This year, I've started doing some boxing. Me and my wife box together."

2011 Touches Leaders
Player Touches
Jonathan Stewart 142 carries, 47 catches
DeAngelo Williams 155 carries, 16 catches
Steve Smith 79 catches, 6 carries
Greg Olsen 45 catches
Legedu Naanee 44 catches

Smith said his goal is to play three or four more years. Based on his production in 2011, he should continue to be a consistent threat. In his first year with Newton, Smith had 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. He hopes to improve in 2012.

"I can improve on everything," Smith said. "There's probably about 15 receptions that I think I should have had either by allowing a guy to tip it or not getting my feet down. As an individual, I left a lot of real estate on the field. That's what I think I can improve on."

Smith remains a solid No. 2 receiver worth drafting in Round 4. He is the featured option in this passing game no matter what else happens on the field.

Fantasy owners should monitor the No. 2 receiver battle with LaFell and David Gettis. LaFell is expected to win the job, but Gettis could make it interesting with a strong preseason. Gettis is someone to keep on your radar as well.

We also want to see how the Panthers will use Tolbert. Will he get touches as a tailback or strictly line up at fullback? Our expectation is he will be on the field a lot with either Stewart or Williams, and Tolbert's main role will be in short-yardage situations and in the passing game.

Injury update

Charles Johnson (knee; questionable for the start of training camp)

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Jamey at @JameyEisenberg and on Facebook .

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by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
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