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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Carolina Panthers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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After going 12-4 and winning the NFC South last season, many people are counting on the Panthers to repeat. Not so fast -- even with a solid defense that might have the best front seven in the league, the Panthers have a lot of issues heading into 2014.

Pretty much all of the problems surround Cam Newton. His receiving corps has been completely turned over without much in the way of upgrades, his offensive line remains suspect and his ankle was surgically repaired in March. But other than that he had a terrific offseason!

The defense also has some problems, though it's mostly in the secondary. Pass rusher extraordinaire Greg Hardy was arrested this offseason in a domestic incident and could face league suspension. He also will play this season on the franchise tag. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (74 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions) signed with the Vikings and safety Mike Mitchell (66 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions last season) signed a deal with the Steelers in March, leaving the Panthers with some weaknesses in the defensive backfield even with the additions of safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud.

It all could lead to a challenging year for the Panthers, particularly as the NFC South's competing offenses improve and the schedule includes them, the Packers, Bears, Lions, Steelers, Bengals, Eagles and world champion Seahawks. The NFC South title has never been won by the same team in consecutive seasons. Looks like it'll stay that way.

Best Panthers pickup is ... Greg Olsen

Look, someone has to catch the ball in Carolina. For all the warts they have at receiver, the one constant over the last few seasons has been Olsen. Last year he tied for the team lead in targets with 109 and led in catches (73), yards (816) and receiving scores (six). In 2012 he was second in those categories save for touchdowns (five) behind Steve Smith, who is no longer with the Panthers. Newton has established chemistry with Olsen and should lean on him a ton. Get behind the idea of taking him with a pick in the middle of the draft.

Long-term prospect ... Kelvin Benjamin

When's the last time Newton had a tall, fast, strong receiver on his side of the field? Maybe college, if then? Benjamin has amazing size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and is very fast getting downfield but might get wedged into playing a role he's not ready for in 2014 with a quarterback who won't quite be 100 percent healthy. Benjamin is sure to have some big games but plenty of stinkers too. The best plan is to draft him with high expectations starting in 2015, though taking him with a late-round lottery ticket this summer can't be ruled out as a dumb idea.

Don't forget about ... DeAngelo Williams

2013 Touches Leaders
775 total touches
DeAngelo Williams 227 (201 car., 26 rec.) 29.3%
Mike Tolbert 128 (101 car., 27 rec.) 16.5%
Greg Olsen 73 rec. 9.4%
Steve Smith 64 rec. 8.3%
Jonathan Stewart 55 (48 car., 7 rec.) 7.1%
All others 228 29.4%

There's going to come a point in your draft when you look at the remaining running backs and get physically ill. It happens. But you could do worse than a running back who has averaged at least 4.1 yards per season since entering the NFL in 2006 and has missed one game in the last three years. Williams is that guy. Yep, he's 31 but still has gas left in the tank thanks to not being used up early on in his career. Williams had eight-plus Fantasy points in half of his games last season, not bad for a guy who will probably not start very often for you. True, Jonathan Stewart is healthy (for now) and will take work away from Williams (for now), and Williams is probably going to get shut out at the goal line by Newton and Mike Tolbert. Whatever. The point here is that Williams should get close to 1,000 total yards, provide depth for your Fantasy team and be the biggest part of the remaining strength of the Panthers offense: the run game. Aim for him when the going gets tough at running back starting in Round 8.

Schedule analysis

If the Panthers offense was going to be in trouble on its own, then the schedule does absolutely zero favors. Teams that were strong against the run last year like the Bucs, Lions and Bengals mesh with teams expected to be much improved against the run in the Steelers, Ravens and Bears -- and that's just the first six games! Things do lighten up after a home date with the Seahawks in Week 8, so maybe some Panthers players will step up in the second half. The season ends with two games against the Falcons, road tilts at Minnesota and New Orleans and homers versus the Bucs and Browns with a Week 12 bye mixed in. Maybe a good plan is to not draft Panthers players but trade for them after that Seahawks game.

Training camp battles

Might there be any changes to how the running backs are utilized? The Panthers running backs have been frustrating to deal with for a ton of reasons. There are a lot of them that are used in varying ways and when the offense is near the goal line it's the quarterback who scores the most. Last year it was pretty easy to decipher the code

Who's starting at receiver? It might be the ugliest receiving corps in football but players still have to work their way into the lineup. There will be some pressure to get Benjamin on the field as he's a first-round pick -- if he has a solid camp then he'll probably begin the year on the outside. Jerricho Cotchery has also been penciled into the slot, a role he did well with last year with the Steelers. The other outside receiver is up in the air between Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and others. Or, the Panthers could rely on two-tight end sets and put Ed Dickson on the field with Olsen and take one of those receivers off the field. Guess what? It's a mess. Cam Newton didn't have anyone great to throw to last season but somehow it's worse this season.

Bold prediction

Cam Newton is going to have the worst year of his career. Not only are the top four wide receivers he threw to last year no longer on the team, but he himself is still working his way back from March surgery on his left ankle. He is at risk for missing the start of training camp (he was still limping as of late May) but should be ready for Week 1, albeit not necessarily 100 percent. Getting the timing down with his entirely new receiving corps will be one thing, but how he and his coaches will feel about running the ball will be another. Newton's rushing numbers have been huge for Fantasy -- hopefully the ankle doesn't impact how often or productive he'll be. And hopefully the ankle doesn't change anything about his passing mechanics.

But on top of all this is the fact that Newton's offensive line seems like it will be a problem. Left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Nate Chandler is penciled in as his replacement but he had just 40 snaps at left tackle last season. Chandler and right tackle Byron Bell both had negative grades from ProFootballFocus.com in 2013. Guard Amini Silatolu is coming back from an ACL injury and still isn't quite 100 percent. The only certainty is at center with Ryan Kalil, a very good lineman. But if the Panthers put Newton and his ankle behind a suspect offensive line, defensive coordinators will smell blood in the water and come after him, especially since his receiving corps isn't anything special. Each of the Panthers first eight games are against teams with either at least one premier pass rusher or a legendary defensive coordinator -- or both. Newton's track record suggests success (28 games with 20-plus Fantasy points over 48 regular-season games) and he remains a freak athlete, but there's a lot riding against him this season.

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Player News
Chris Johnson looks 'light on his feet, and fast'
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(5:56 pm ET) Jets running back Chris Johnson, who had offseason knee surgery, "looked light on his feet, and fast" at practice Thursday, reports ESPN.com. "I haven't really [gone] 100 percent with the team since I have been here so being able to go out there and run and do all the team periods felt good," Johnson said.

The Jets used him on rushing plays and also lined him up wide as a receiver. Johnson fumbled on a running play but overall "seemed right at home," the website said. "I felt good," Johnson said. "I felt no pain or anything like that."

His main competition for carries, Chris Ivory, sat out with a hamstring problem.


Bills make roster moves
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(5:50 pm ET) The Bills claimed center Jared Wheeler off waivers from the Panthers and waived/injured cornerback Brandon Smith.

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by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(5:46 pm ET) The Giants ran 59 no-huddle plays all of last season. That represented 4.7 percent of their total plays. In contrast, the Eagles ran a league-high 705 no-huddle plays (51.1 percent) and the Broncos ran 537 (35.4 percent).

It appears the Giants plan to have Eli Manning operating out of the no-huddle more often. Their first three practices featured frequent use of the no-huddle.

"It keeps defenses on their toes," running back Rashad Jennings said. "[Offensive coordinator Ben] McAdoo has a way to keep the defense on their toes, put pressure on them, get the long shots, get the grinding yards. It’s a lot of different ways to attack a defense. Also, it puts a lot of ownership on the players to learn the playbook. It puts the capability in the quarterback’s hands to make decisions."

Jennings said the team can run its entire offense out of the no-huddle. Wideout Rueben Randle also loves it.

"It gives us time to get set and see what the defense is going to do, to keep them out of position," he said. "Switching in our personnel to take advantage of the personnel they have out there. Hopefully, they’re in regular [defense] and we’re in three-wide, so we can spread the ball out a little bit and use our speed to make a few plays."


Steve Smith 'puts on a show'
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(5:29 pm ET) New Ravens receiver Steve Smith "put on a show" in the team's first training camp practice, reports ESPN.com. Smith faked out starting corner Lardarius Webb on an out route, then beat Webb and projected No. 3 corner Chykie Brown on deep passes, the report said.

The website also credited Smith with raising the intensity level at practice.


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(5:15 pm ET) Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who's coming back from a ruptured Achilles, looked good during the team's first practice and said he's working without restrictions.

"If I had limitations, I wouldn’t be practicing," Wilfork told the Boston Herald. "My job is to help my teammates the best way I can, whatever that may be. The only way for me to help my teammates is to be on the field and be healthy. Right now, I’m on the field and I’m healthy. If anything happens in the future, I can’t predict that. But right now my job is to help this team the best way I can and get better each day and that’s what I’m going to do."


Ronald Leary has strained hamstring
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(5:08 pm ET) Cowboys starting guard Ronald Leary strained his hamstring taking a conditioning test Monday, reports ESPN.com. He's starting camp on the PUP list. It's unclear how long he'll be out.

Jamaal Charles gets $8.3 million guaranteed
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(5:02 pm ET) Jamaal Charles' four-year contract extension includes $8.3 million guaranteed but no guaranteed money beyond this season, reports Pro Football Talk. The Chiefs' star running back is now signed through 2017.

Marcus Lattimore on NFI list with two injuries
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(4:58 pm ET) 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said running back Marcus Lattimore is starting camp on the non-football injury list because that's what doctors and trainers recommended, reports the Sacramento Bee.

Asked if the problem was Lattimore's surgically reconstructed knee or the hamstring strain he suffered in the spring, Harbaugh replied, "A combination of the two." Harbaugh declined to elaborate.

Other reports indicate Lattimore is not too far away from being ready. He could be activated at any time.


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(4:44 pm ET) Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said he's not worried about Knowshon Moreno coming back in bad shape. The team opens training camp on Thursday and will begin practicing soon thereafter. Moreno had offseason knee surgery after reportedly showing up to camp out of shape. 

"Not full throttle 100 percent reps yet but won't be too long," Philbin said of Moreno via the Miami Herald.


Brandon Gibson expected to be full speed soon
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(4:42 pm ET) Dolphins coach Joe Philbin is not concerned about Brandon Gibson's comeback from a major knee injury and he's confident Gibson will be full speed soon, according to the Miami Herald. Gibson tore his patellar tendon in the middle of last season but reportedly was moving well as of a month ago.

When healthy, Gibson should compete for the No. 3 receiver spot.


 
 
 
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