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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
Raiders QB Carr on Sparano: 'I love him to death'
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10:52 am ET) Raiders rookie Derek Carr is hoping to play well in the last two games for his current coach and perhaps the coach of the future.

Carr has been a rare bright spot on a 2-12 team. He has played for the dismissed Dennis Allen and for current coach Tony Sparano. The Raiders are expected to make plenty of changes in the offseason, but Carr hopes Sparano is not a casualty.

"Right now, I am focused on playing my heart out for [Sparano] because I love him," Carr told ESPN. "I love him to death. I love playing for him. He pushes the heck out of me, and I love it. That's how I like to be coached. ... Not knowing [what the future holds] is hard, but I am grateful that I do get to play for him now."


Eagles QB Matt Barkley feels 'light years ahead of last year'
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(10:36 am ET) Eagles second-year quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown one pass this season and has not taken any first-team snaps in practice, reports Philly.com. But as the No. 2 quarterback behind Mark Sanchez, Barkley is an injury away from playing.

He said he feels ready, should that situation arise.

"I feel like I’ve grown a lot," Barkley told the webiste. "I have. My comfortability with the receivers and our personnel. The knowledge of the offense. I feel light years ahead of last year – that’s for sure."


Texans seem set to name Keenum starting QB for Sunday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10:17 am ET) The Texans appear destined to name Case Keenum as their starting quarterback for the Sunday game against the Giants, per CBSSports.com NFL Insider Jason La Canfora.

Keenum was waived by Houston in late October before re-signing on Monday. He could be considered a better candidate than Thad Lewis due to his participation in offseason and training camp.


Report: Reggie Wayne might play less in last two games
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9:52 am ET) With the Colts having locked up their division but unlikely to earn a first-round bye, receiver Reggie Wayne "might see less action" during the final two regular-season games, reports the Indianapolis Star. Wayne is playing with a torn triceps.

He played 52 snaps Week 15 after playing 63 the week before. If Wayne's snaps keep dropping, rookie Donte Moncrief and veteran Hakeem Nicks should see more playing time.

Moncrief played 37 snaps and Nicks 21 in last Sunday's win over Houston. The Colts visit Dallas on Sunday as 3-point underdogs.


Ravens RB Justin Forsett not on injury report
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9:33 am ET) Ravens running back Justin Forsett, who's dealt with a knee injury the past few weeks, is no longer on the injury report, reports the Baltimore Sun. "I feel good," he said.

"This is actually one of the best Wednesdays that I've had in a while. So, my body is feeling good, maintaining, feeling ready to go."

Forsett practiced fully Wednesday ahead of Sunday's visit to Houston. He has run for 1,128 yards and eight touchdowns and leads all running backs with 5.4 yards per carry.


Philip Rivers skipping practices so he can rest up for Saturday
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9:24 am ET) Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has started 142 straight games, the second-longest active streak behind Eli Manning's 166. With San Diego on a short week before Saturday's game against the 49ers, Rivers missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday with chest and back injuries, though he did participate in a Wednesday morning walkthrough.

"I hate not practicing," he told ESPN.com. "But I think at some point you have to do what's best for me and the team. And practicing [Wednesday] wouldn't have been beneficial to moving toward Saturday."

Added Rivers about his playing status: "At this point in the week, I think there's no doubt."

If Rivers surprisingly sits out, backup Kellen Clemens would start. He went 4-5 as a starter with St. Louis last year.

"One of the reasons we brought Kellen in here is that he was very competitive last year, thrown into a tough situation," offensive coordinator Frank Reich told the website. "He played well against some really tough defenses. He's a very smart competitive guy."

The Chargers are 1-point underdogs at San Francisco.


Broncos promote S Josh Bush
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9:06 am ET) The Broncos elevated safety Josh Bush to the actie roster. The third-year pro had been on the team's practice squad for a month.

Eagles' Chris Polk gets first-team reps in practice
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12/17/2014) Eagles running back Chris Polk received first-team reps in practice on Wednesday, according to CSNPhilly.com.

Polk opened practice with the starters and ran a couple of plays. LeSean McCoy watched the plays from the sideline. Following practice, McCoy stressed that it wasn't a big deal. "We rotate all the time," he said. "[Running back coach Duce Staley] pulled me out. [Darren] Sproles wasn't in either." Polk is coming off a three touchdown performance in Week 15. It's possible he could find his way into more playing time given the practice situation. 


Seahawks without three offensive lineman on Wednesday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12/17/2014) The Seahawks did not have three of their offensive linemen at practice on Wednesday, according to ESPN.

Max Unger, Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy were all held out. Unger has missed the past four games due to an ankle and knee issue. He was able to practice last Friday, but did not play on Sunday. Okung is dealing with a bruised lung, but there's a chance he'll recover in time for Sunday's game. "[Okung is] going to have some stuff done [Thursday] that will let us know where he sits and all that," head coach Pete Carrol said. "He’s not out of the plan yet."

Sweezy is dealing with an ankle injury. His appearance on the injury report comes as somewhat of a surprise. 


Lions pick up CB Josh Thomas
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12/17/2014) The Lions have claimed cornerback Josh Thomas on waivers, according to the New York Post

Thomas was cut by the Jets on Tuesday, but found a new job quickly. He's played in three games this season, registering two tackles. 


 
 
 
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