(2013 QB Rank—#5, 22.5 FPts/G)
Cam Newton set the bar high as a rookie and he has yet to reach that same level of fantasy production in the past two years. Newton has matured as a passer, posting gains in completion percentage and passing touchdowns during the 2013 season. As his confidence as a passer rose, his need to run decreased. The dip in rushing stats was enough to knock him down a peg or two from the position’s elite. More troubling for those considering him for the 2014 season is his lack of proven options in the passing game. Losing a future Hall of Fame receiver in Steve Smith would hurt any quarterback, but when a quarterback who has struggled to maintain a completion percentage above 60 percent loses his most dynamic threat the loss is even more significant. Furthermore, Newton’s other starting wide receiver from the 2013 season, Brandon LaFell, signed with New England during the offseason. In the wake these losses the team added a pair of veterans Jericho Cotchery and Jason Avant as well as rookie Kelvin Benjamin.
Not only does Newton need to develop chemistry with an entire set of new targets, he will have to do it on a left ankle that was surgically repaired this offseason. Carolina has been cautious with Newton so far and he will likely need the entire preseason before feeling fully healed. This may have a direct impact on Newton’s rushing totals this season, placing increased pressure on his ability to perform in the pocket to be a viable fantasy starter. This uncertainty keeps Newton outside the top five at the position and depending on your risk tolerance it is perfectly reasonable to drop him further down into the last tier of QB1s. Derek Anderson will be ready if called upon as the team’s backup quarterback but does not offer much upside in an already ordinary offense.
(2013 RB Rank—#21, 9.4 FPts/G)
Although Carolina has ranked in the top third of the NFL in rushing yards per game over the past three seasons it has also declined for three straight years. The guy leading the way during that stretch has been DeAngelo Williams. Over the years, Williams has been given almost every label possible in the fantasy realm. Elite, bust, bargain and injury risk – at some point or another the Panthers lead back has both intrigued and soured potential fantasy owners and 2014 is no different. This year he finds himself a value play as a starting running back being drafted outside the top 100 players in redraft leagues. Now on the wrong side of 30, the veteran running back enters his ninth year having never seen his yards per carry average dip below 4.0 in any single season. Jonathan Stewarts continued presence on the roster will take a few carries away, but he isn’t a major threat to usurp the starting job away from Williams unless an injury occurs. He will have a few touchdowns vultured so his value tops out as a RB3/4 depending on the depth of your league’s rosters.
(2013 RB Rank—#90, 3.7 FPts/G)
For all the talent Jonathan Stewart has flashed since coming into the league as a first-round draft choice in 2008, he has only surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau once. Whether it was the presence of DeAngelo Williams or injuries, the fact remains that Stewart is a long shot on draft day. He’s already dealing with a minor hamstring injury that occurred in training camp that will also keep him out of early preseason action. At this point in his career, Stewart is no longer the threat to steal carries that he once was, but his injury risk should have his fantasy stock bottomed out leading into the busiest fantasy draft weeks.
(2013 RB Rank—#40, 6.0 FPts/G)
Mike Tolbert’s decision to leave San Diego for Carolina in 2012 has resulted in a steady decline in fantasy production. Even though the fireplug back nearly doubled his rushing attempts in 2013, he only had one game with more than 40 rushing yards. The team values Tolbert as a quality choice in short yardage situations but unless he is given every carry near the goal, it will be hard for fantasy owners to trust him on a consistent basis in 2014.
(2013 WR Rank—N/A)
The team’s top selection in the 2014 draft, Kelvin Benjamin brings a huge 6’5” frame and plenty of hope to a passing attack that lost franchise leader Steve Smith. Concerns over Benjamin’s rawness, propensity for drops and lack of optimal speed do not trump the fact that he is a physical mismatch for just about any single defensive back in the league. In this capacity, the Panthers are hoping he can quickly emerge as one of the league’s deadliest red zone targets while also giving Cam Newton a much larger window to complete his passes. Positive reports from training camp have raved about his ability to digest the playbook and make plays in the red zone. For fantasy purposes, his touchdown potential alone gives him WR3/flex upside but he likely won’t see enough volume to crack the top-40 receivers in 2014.
(2013 WR Rank—#30, 8.3 FPts/G)
Jerricho Cotchery’s name atop the depth chart is akin to seeing a huge red “X” flashing over the rest of the Panthers list of receivers on draft day. He is slated to be used in the slot as a possession type of receiver while rookie Kelvin Benjamin develops on the outside. With Greg Olsen a more preferred and proven target for Cam Newton, Cotchery’s fantasy appeal is severely narrow. In 2013, Cotchery had the fewest receiving yards of any receiver with more than seven touchdowns. He will be worth far more to Carolina as a mentor and reliable third down target than he will as a WR4 in the fantasy game.
(2013 WR Rank—#82, 3.8 FPts/G)
As if Carolina could slow the game down any more, they added Jason Avant to the mix at wide receiver. A steady contributor for eight seasons in Philadelphia, Avant was unsurprisingly one player that failed to benefit from Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. He should be a better fit with the Panthers but remains a bland choice for fantasy owners. With only Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King as competition, Avant’s experience should give him an edge on being the team’s third wideout heading into 2014.
(2013 TE Rank—#8, 7.4 FPts/G)
The guy who should benefit most from Carolina’s decision to let Steve Smith leave and not replace him with another proven talent is Greg Olsen. The 29 year old is quietly coming off his best year as a pro despite the fact that Carolina threw the ball fewer than all but two teams during the 2013 regular season. Fantasy owners should look to his consistent increase in opportunity and production over the past three years as signs he is ready to take another step forward as Cam Newton’s top receiving threat. During the 2013 regular season only four other tight ends caught more balls than Olsen: Jimmy Graham (going in Round 1), Tony Gonzalez (retired), Jordan Cameron (averaged 4.4 receptions and 45.9 receiving yards over final seven games in 2013) and Antonio Gates (in decline at age 34 with Ladarius Green emerging). A few more touchdowns would give Olsen a shot at the position’s top five, offering plenty of value and upside as the eighth tight end off the board according to recent ADP information. The oft-injured Ed Dickson was added this prior to camp. He is likely to see the field in two TE formations while adding depth behind Olsen.