QB Cam Newton
After scoring just 16 touchdowns during the 2010 season, the Panthers used the 1st pick in the 2011 draft to acquire Newton. With Newton leading the offense from Week 1, Carolina scored 48 touchdowns despite him not having the benefit of a full off-season, easily justifying his selection as the top overall pick. Along the way, Newton became the first rookie to throw for over 400 yards in his first game, set the rookie record for passing yards in one game with 432, set the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 14 and broke Peyton Manning’s record of 3,739 passing yards for a rookie, finishing the season with 4,051. He also threw for 21 touchdowns and amassed 706 rushing yards on his way to becoming the 4th ranked fantasy quarterback in 2011. By season’s end, Newton had put to rest any notion that he was not ready to lead a pro style offense. If you are looking for any reason to doubt Newton in 2012, here it is. He was held to under 200 yards passing in each of his last three games and over his last six games, he averaged just 194 passing yards per game. Of course, he more than made up for that by throwing for nine touchdowns and rushing for 295 yards and rushing for five touchdowns. At season’s end, Newton was the fourth ranked fantasy quarterback, with his 14 rushing touchdowns helping propel him to that spot. However, rushing touchdowns from the quarterback position can be volatile and as a precautionary tale, look no further than Michael Vick, whose rushing touchdowns plummeted from nine in 2010 to just one in 2011. Put another way – can we trust Newton to average one rushing touchdown every nine carries again in 2012? While Newton is a top five ranked fantasy quarterback for 2012, he carries far more risk than any of the other options surrounding him in the rankings.
RB Jonathan Stewart
When Stewart gets a chance to run the ball, he looks good (career average of 4.9 yards per carry). He just doesn’t get a chance to run it enough (career low 142 carries last season). In 2011, Stewart split carries with DeAngelo Williams in the Panthers backfield but both players were behind quarterback Cam Newton in terms of getting short yardage work. If that situation wasn’t bad enough, the Panthers backfield got even more crowded in the off-season with the acquisition of former Charger Mike Tolbert, who was a TD vulture in San Diego, scoring 21 times over the past two seasons and caught 54 passes in 2011. His presence will make it difficult for Stewart to match his production from last season – five total touchdowns, 761 rushing yards to go along with career-highs in receptions (47) and receiving yards (413). While Stewart is a solid player entering his contract year, he shapes up as no better than a mid-tier to low end RB3 this season with little upside barring an injury in the Panthers backfield.
RB DeAngelo Williams
The Panthers showed their commitment to Williams in the off-season, signing him to a five-year, $43-million contract that included $21-million in guarantees. Then they showed their commitment to a RBCC approach by signing free agent Mike Tolbert to supplement an already crowded Panthers backfield. And, of course, kill Williams’ chances of duplicating the success he enjoyed during his career year in 2008 (1,518 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns). There are two problems with owning Williams on your fantasy roster. One is that he sits 4th in the pecking order for short yardage touches behind quarterback Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Tolbert. The other is that he doesn’t catch the ball with just 27 receptions over the past two years. So, his fantasy production comes from rushing yards (54.4 yards per game over the past two seasons) and long touchdown runs (five touchdown runs of 22 yards or more in 2011). That isn’t a recipe for fantasy glory but it is a recipe for major inconsistency (eight games with less than five fantasy points). Consider Williams a low end RB3 in 2012.
RB Mike Tolbert
Tolbert was an unexpected fantasy star in 2010 and he followed that up with another solid season in 2011, averaging more than 10 FPts/G for the second consecutive year. In 2010, he ran for a career-high 735 yards and piled up 11 rushing touchdowns. Last season, he took a slightly different path, producing 490 rushing yards, 433 receiving yards and ten total touchdowns (two through the air). While Tolbert was a solid producer in San Diego, he faces an uncertain future in a crowded Panthers backfield. Tolbert is clearly the third most talented running back on the roster behind Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams but he is a better short yardage runner than either of those players. Unfortunately for Tolbert, the Panthers main threat on short yardage rushing players is quarterback Cam Newton. While Tolbert excelled as a receiver with the Chargers, he will likely split that role with Stewart in 2012. Add it all up and Tolbert shapes up as a player who will likely put a damper on the fantasy production of Stewart and Williams but not produce enough to make him worth owning in the majority of leagues.
WR Steve Smith
In 2010, Smith looked undersized, old and on the decline during a disappointing season in which he finished the year with 46 receptions for 554 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 14 games, his least productive season since his injury shortened campaign in 2004. Turns out, the issue wasn’t Smith – it was the play of the team’s quarterbacks. With Cam Newton under certain, Smith enjoyed a renaissance year in 2011, catching 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. While the numbers were impressive, Smith’s production tailed off as the season wound down. With defenses focused on slowing down the Panthers big play passing attack, Smith caught just 33 passes for 476 yards and three touchdowns over the team’s final eight games. In 2012, the question is what Smith are we buying? The one that was a revelation over the first half of the season with 46 receptions for 918 yards and four touchdowns? Or the second half version? One guy shapes up as a WR1 while the second shapes up as a WR3. Let’s split the difference and call Smith a WR2 in 2012.
WR Brandon LaFell
The Panthers need somebody to emerge as a starter opposite Steve Smith at wide receiver and the smart money is on LaFell. The team’s 2010 3rd round pick out of Louisiana State has largely disappointed during his first two years in the league, failing to catch 50% of his targets as a rookie and falling behind the forgettable Legedu Naanee on the depth chart in 2011. The silver lining to LaFell’s season was that he seemed to finally be putting it together near the end of the year. After being targeted less than three times per game over the first nine games of the season, LaFell was targeted 30 times over the final seven games of the year, catching 18 passes for 310 yards and a score. Sure, the one touchdown was a 91-yarder which obviously padded his production but it is worth noting that he averaged a nifty 17.0 yards per reception last season, showcasing the playmaking ability the Panthers hoped they were getting when they drafted him. LaFell has a nice blend of size and speed to go along with a solid opportunity. He is worth taking a flier on in the late rounds of most fantasy drafts.
WR David Gettis
The Panthers 2010 6th round pick, Gettis unexpectedly emerged as a starter during his rookie season, catching 37 passes for 508 yards and three touchdowns although a large portion of that production came in just two games (10 receptions for 217 yards and all three of his touchdowns). Truth be told, his starter’s status was more due to the Panthers lack of talent at the wide receiver position than his own performance. Nonetheless, Gettis was expected to take a step forward in 2011 before a preseason ACL tear landed him on injured reserve. With Gettis out of the lineup, Brandon LaFell took over in the starting lineup and the Panthers plan on giving him every opportunity to hold onto that role. In addition, the Panthers traded for Louis Murphy in the preseason, which may be a sign that they aren’t convinced that Gettis’ knee is fully recovered. Gettis shapes up as waiver wire material in 2012.
WR Louis Murphy
A couple of years ago, Murphy was getting some love as a potential breakout candidate due to his solid rookie season in 2009. Of course, the one major disclaimer from that season was that he caught just 35.4% of his targets and that proved to be the most telling statistic from his rookie campaign. After three years in the league, the 2009 4th round pick was buried on the Oakland depth chart, leading to his preseason trade to the Panthers. In Carolina, Murphy is insurance in the event Brandon LaFell struggles and David Gettis is slow to recover from the ACL injury that ended his 2011 season. Barring his ascension to the starting lineup, Murphy is waiver wire fodder in 2012.
WR Joe Adams
Looking to add some punch to their receiving corps and in the return game, the Panthers grabbed Joe Adams in the 4th round of this year’s draft. While Adams showcased some playmaking ability in college at Arkansas, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski doesn’t have a history of showcasing the slot position. That doesn’t bode well for Adams’ fantasy prospects during his rookie season.
WR Armanti Edwards
The Panthers used a 2010 3rd round pick to acquire Edwards in the hopes of converting the college quarterback to a wide receiver in the pros. After two seasons and no receptions, it’s safe to say that the Panthers massively overreached in drafting Edwards. If the writing wasn’t on the wall with the selection of Joe Adams in the 4th round of this year’s draft, it certainly became clear that Edwards roster spot was in jeopardy when the team acquired Louis Murphy in the preseason.
TE Greg Olsen
Finally free from the shackles of being a starting tight end in a Mike Martz led offense, Olsen had a chance to fulfill the promise that led him to being a 1st round pick of the Bears in the 2008 draft. And for half a season, it looked like Olsen might be on the verge of fulfilling that promise. In his first eight games, he caught 30 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns, averaging a solid 7.5 FPts/G which would have allowed him to finish as a top ten fantasy tight end. Unfortunately, he tailed off badly over the final half of the season with 15 receptions for 181 yards and a single touchdown. Worse yet, Olsen was completely AWOL in the Panthers final three games with just four targets. Although Olsen occasionally shows glimpses of the talent that made him a 1st round pick, the bottom line is that his career highs all came in the 2008 season when he caught 60 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. In today’s world, that would make him a solid backup fantasy tight end. While somebody might sell you on the fact that Olsen will get Jeremy Shockey’s looks now that he is no longer in Carolina, that’s snake oil since the Panthers are now better equipped at the wide receiver position.