The Panthers were one of the most disappointing teams in the league last season, finishing with an 8-8 record after capturing the NFC South title in 2008. Head coach John Fox is squarely on the hot seat, and general manager Marty Hurney joins him there courtesy of some questionable personnel moves.
Faced with salary cap issues after the 2008 season, Hurney made the disastrous decision to sign Jake Delhomme to a long-term contract extension that included $20 million in guarantees. After a miserable 2009 season, Delhomme was released.
After Hurney signed Delhomme, he used the team’s available salary cap space to place the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers. When the Panthers were unable to work out a long-term contract with Peppers, they were hamstrung by the salary cap and unable to sign any free agents. This offseason, Peppers left the Panthers to sign with the Bears, robbing the team of their best defensive player.
This year, the team will go with the quarterback tandem of Matt Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen, but the team’s offense will rise and fall on the play of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. If the offensive line returns to its 2008 form, the Panthers have the potential to have the best rushing attack in the league.
However, with Steve Smith a year older and the team relying on 2007 second-round bust Dwayne Jarrett and three rookies to play opposite Smith, Moore or Clausen will be challenged to get the passing game going. That means the Panthers offense will depend on its ability to run the ball—and that tells you which Panthers you should focus on in your fantasy draft.
QB Matt Moore
Moore’s prospects got a lot less exciting due to the presence of rookie second-round pick Jimmy Clausen. Frankly speaking, Moore’s prospects weren’t that great to begin with. His role seems to be that of a caretaker quarterback in a run-based offense, and he was up to the task in 2009. In five starts, he passed for 990 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception, averaging a healthy 16 fantasy points per game. However, that average was helped along by the eight touchdown passes, which projects to 26 on the season. You won’t find a forecast with that many touchdown passes for Moore in 2010. To sum it up, Moore’s value is that of a quarterback who plays low-risk football on a team that loves to run and has a single proven wide receiver who will miss part of training camp with a broken arm. Not to mention he’s likely keeping the seat warm for Clausen. You have better options.
QB Jimmy Clausen
While Clausen’s college production is undeniable and he has the measurables to succeed at the next level, the question of why he fell to the middle of the second round in the draft remains unanswered. The rest of the NFL may not have been sold on Clausen, but the Panthers obviously were, choosing to use their first pick in the draft (they didn’t have a selection in the first round) on him. With Matt Moore better suited to backup duty, look for Clausen to emerge as the Panthers starting quarterback sometime in 2010. He is a decent prospect in keeper leagues, but his future value is somewhat limited given the Panthers outstanding running back duo.
RB DeAngelo Williams
Injuries held Williams back in 2009, otherwise he would have been in the top 10 of fantasy running backs for the second year in a row. His production last year didn’t match his breakout season of 2008 when he finished with 1,639 total yards and 20 touchdowns, but that can hardly be blamed entirely on Williams. The Panthers suffered through poor quarterback play for much of 2009, and the offensive line, though still a solid unit, suffered a bit of a dropoff. For some reason, Williams fantasy status has taken a hit, perhaps more than it should have. He missed three games with an ankle injury last year after playing 16 games in 2007 and 2008. Although Williams has done nothing to lose his starting role, the consensus seems to be that standout backup Jonathan Stewart has a solid chance of supplanting Williams in 2010. Look for Williams to hold off Stewart and challenge for top 10 fantasy status again this year.
RB Jonathan Stewart
Stewart has proven to be a capable back over his first two years in the league and will challenge DeAngelo Williams for the Panthers starting job in 2010. Even if he doesn’t earn it, he will still receive significant touches, and the potential is there for the Panthers to have two 1000-yard backs again this year. Although Stewart hasn’t missed a game during his two years in the league, he has dealt with various injuries and has proven to be durable in the backup role. Consistency has been an issue, but it’s hard to blame that on a backup running back that can be subject to limited carries based on game situations. Williams owners will need to spend a pick in the fourth or fifth round to get Stewart. Draft him as a fantasy backup with huge upside should Williams suffer a season-ending injury.
WR Steve Smith
Smith salvaged his fantasy reputation with some nice games at the end of the 2009 season. In 2010, his production hinges on his ability to recover from the arm he broke playing flag football in June and on the play of quarterback Matt Moore or rookie Jimmy Clausen. No matter who is under center, the quarterback situation in Carolina adds to the risk of having Smith on your fantasy roster, as does the team’s lack of a proven threat playing opposite him. While Smith’s production declined in 2009, he is still a big play threat, as his 14.8 yards per catch average from last season proves. It’s also worth noting that Smith put up big numbers even with a very inconsistent Jake Delhomme. At this point in his career, Smith should be drafted as a WR2 with both risk and upside.
WR Dwayne Jarrett
Since being selected in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft, the former University of Southern California product has managed just 33 receptions for 388 yards and a touchdown. Jarrett’s speed was a concern coming out of college, and he has displayed little ability to gain separation at the NFL level. The Panthers have also not been happy that he refuses to use his big frame to shield defenders while making the catch. During the draft, the Panthers used third round picks on Brandon LaFell and converted quarterback Armanti Edwards, as well a sixth round pick on David Gettis. Both LaFell and Gettis are big receivers who have the size to replace Jarrett. The Panthers aren’t sold on Jarrett and you shouldn’t be either.
WR Brandon LaFell
Fantasy football is all about opportunity; and in Carolina, Steve Smith isn’t getting any younger and Dwayne Jarrett isn’t getting any better. While the Panthers haven’t historically been a great passing team, LaFell enters a situation where he can be expected to earn significant playing time. Look for him to supplant Jarrett in the starting lineup at some point during the season, if not by opening day. He possesses good size and enough speed to succeed at the position at the NFL level. Don’t expect big things from LaFell during his rookie season, but keep your eye on him on the waiver wire, and keep him up for consideration in keeper leagues.
TE Dante Rosario
Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane. Although he has improved his production in each of his three years in the league, Rosario is a woefully inconsistent player who has failed to earn a significant role in a Panthers offense that has been devoid of a solid #2 receiver or quality tight end the entire time he has been with the team. He has the talent to be successful but should be considered a deep sleeper at best in 2010.