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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
Titans sign CB Brandon Harris to one-year deal
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:09 pm ET) The Titans have signed cornerback Brandon Harris to a one-year contract on Friday, per the team's official website. Harris played 11 games in 2014, his first season with the Titans. He finished with 11 combined tackles and three pass deflections last season.

Redskins' Thompson, Redd to compete for third-down back role
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:24 am ET) Redskins coach Jay Gruden said this week at the NFL owners' meetings running back Chris Thompson will get the first chance to secure third-down responsibilities, according to The Washington Post. Silas Redd will also get consideration for the role of third-down back.

“Chris [Thompson] came in last year at the end and did some things, and we’re hoping that he can come back and stay healthy in the offseason and give us a little jolt back there,” Gruden said. “And Silas Redd will get every chance to do some things also.”

Although, the Redskins could look to bring in some competition before training camp begins.

“I also think that at the running back position in the draft, there’s a ton of them,” Gruden said. “It’s a very deep running back draft in my opinion, and we’re excited to add another piece at some point, hopefully. We have seven picks. Hopefully one of them will be a running back, or a free agent to compete. There are some good free agents that haven’t been signed yet. But, giving Chris an opportunity, Silas, Alfred (Morris), that’s where it starts. And we’ll add some more later on for competition.”


Falcons could bring in Matt Schaub to vie for backup QB role
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:10 am ET) Falcons coach Dan Quinn is not ruling out bringing back former Atlanta quarterback Matt Schaub to compete for the backup role behind starter Matt Ryan, per ESPN.

"Schaub is certainly somebody that we could [add]," Quinn said. "As we get through it, we'll let you know if we go down that road."

The 34-year-old Schaub was released by the Raiders in mid-March. T.J. Yates and Sean Renfree are the other quarterbacks on the Falcons' roster.


Panthers' Rivera expecting Stephen Hill to contribute in 2015
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:45 am ET) Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes wide receiver Stephen Hill is ready to make an impact in 2015 after spending the 2014 season on the practice squad, per ESPN.

“Very much so," Rivera said Wednesday during the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix. “He’s a guy we feel has an opportunity. We’re very excited about [seeing] Stephen during OTAs and minicamp.

“With his size (6-4, 215) and speed and his ability to get vertical, if he can assimilate to what we do -- and I think he will; he seems to be a very smart man -- he might be a guy that has an opportunity to contribute for us."

Rivera felt Hill's year on the practice squad was beneficial after the 2012 second-round pick failed to live up to expectations during his tenure with the Jets. 

“I thought it was a good opportunity to take a step back and take a break," Rivera said. “The thing I liked about Stephen was how he contributed to our football team’s success. He came in. He had been a second-round pick. He had no assumptions, no entitlement.

“He ran all the scout teams for us. He ran them hard. Gave us great looks, which is what makes us excited 'cause you watch a guy perform who could very easily dog it, and he didn’t. And you saw him grow. You saw him make catches. You saw him get comfortable in his own skin again."


Terence Newman reunites with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:16 am ET) The Vikings announced Friday they signed cornerback Terence Newman, who played for coach Mike Zimmer in Dallas and Cincinnati.

“That’s the biggest thing. He can still play. He came in the league later. I think he was 25 when he came in,” Zimmer said, per the team's official website. “He struggled a little bit in Dallas and then played great in Cincinnati. Last year, he didn’t play quite as good, so seemingly with me, we get things fixed a little bit. I really respect him, and I think he really respects me.”

Although terms of the deal were not officially released, NFL.com reported earlier this week the veteran cornerback's deal is a one-year, $2.5 million contract.


Gruden: Redskins 'keeping a close eye' on Santana Moss
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:55 am ET) With wide receiver Santana Moss still looking to continue his NFL career, Washington coach Jay Gruden said there is a chance the Redskins might re-sign the veteran receiver, who had just 10 catches in 2014.

"We're keeping a close eye on Santana," Gruden said at the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix, per ESPN. "You know, that's something that we know where Santana is and he knows where we are, and something may work out down the road.

"I could always play with Santana. Santana's a great person. He's great in the locker room for us. He knows all the positions. I know he's going to be in great shape, and I would not hesitate one bit to call him."


Jaguars' Thomas won't try to measure up to Broncos' numbers
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:11 am ET) New Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas told SI.com he has already begun working with quarterback Blake Bortles.

"It’s exciting, that first time you get to work out with your new quarterback," he said. "We’ve got a couple thousand more reps to go, but I’m really looking forward to that chemistry and growing with that entire offense."

The expectations will be elevated for Thomas, who is coming off two great seasons with the Broncos. However, Thomas isn't out to prove he can have the same production without Peyton Manning throwing him passes.

"I think I’ve got to be a little bit cautious on trying to prove so much," he said. "I think I’ve just got to go out there and work my hardest, and do everything I can to win every route, and see what happens. I don’t want to set a goal of 'I gotta have these numbers.' I’m just going to work my hardest every day, do everything I can to become a better player, and do everything I can to help out my team and this offense."

Thomas is also confident he will be able to coexist on offense with veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis, who has been with the team since 2006.

"I don’t think we’ll have any problem playing together," he said. "I was actually talking to him this weekend. I ran into him; we both live in L.A. He’s a really good guy. I’ve met him a couple times before. We both have the same marketing company, so we know the same people, and people that I respect speak very highly of him. I think we complement each other very well. There are going to be things that he can teach me, and I can learn from him."


Former Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin: I still believe in Chip Kelly
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(8:59 am ET) Former Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin apparently has no ill-will toward Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly. Although the Eagles could not match the Chiefs' five-year, $55 million contract offer, which Maclin signed in mid-March, Maclin is still a fan of Kelly, who has overhauled the Eagles' roster this offseason.

"I still believe in Chip," Maclin said, per The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I think Chip's going to do great things here. I have the utmost respect for him. Unfortunately, we couldn't get something worked out. But at the end of the day I'm very excited about playing for Kansas City and playing for Big Red."

As well as Maclin not being brought back, the Eagles traded LeSean McCoy and quarterback Nick Foles. They also released defensive end Trent Cole and offensive lineman Todd Herremans.

Maclin missed the 2013 season -- Kelly's first in the NFL -- due to a torn ACL. However, he returned in 2014 to post career highs in targets (143), catches (85) and receiving yards (1,318), while tying a career high with 10 touchdowns.


Lions' Caldwell: Don't expect Stafford's numbers to change much
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(8:36 am ET) Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is just one of five quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards. However, since he accomplished the feat in 2011, his passing yards have declined each season.

Stafford passed for 4,257 yards and attempted 602 passes in 2014 -- his first year under coach Jim Caldwell. While at the NFL owners' meetings in Phoenix this week, Caldwell said it's probably safe not to expect Stafford's numbers to change much in 2015.

"Here's the thing I want to make certain you guys understand, and see what I see just in terms of my vision," Caldwell said, per MLive.com. "When I tell you we're not going to throw the ball anymore than we threw it, that's a fact. We're probably not going to throw it (more).

"If we do throw it more, that means we're struggling, we're not winning, we're not a very good football team. OK? Plain and simple. Maybe that ball's got to be distributed a little bit differently, but I don't anticipate those numbers changing, overall, a significant amount."


Nick Foles' acquisition won't change Rams' plans to draft QB
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(8:26 am ET) Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the team is still looking to draft a quarterback this year, despite the acquisition of quarterback Nick Foles, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“It’s our intention to draft one,” Fisher said. “The Nick (Foles) trade has no bearing over what we do in the draft.”

The Rams have the 10th pick in the first round. It's unlikely Jamies Winston or Marcus Mariota fall that far, so unless St. Louis trades up, then they are likely looking to draft from the second-tier of quarterbacks, which includes Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Garrett Grayson.

“There’s some outstanding players once you get beyond (Winston and Mariota),” Fisher said. “We’re just starting the process. My understanding based on our first-wave draft meetings is that there’s some young quarterbacks that can play.”

Petty, who played at Baylor, said in a radio interview earlier in March he intends to visit with the Rams before the draft.

“Good combine,” Fisher said. “Got a very strong arm. Good athlete. You don’t see him do things that we’re gonna ask him to do, so I think you have to see him actually work out, private workout, things like that.”


 
 
 
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