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2016 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cam Newton
Backup(s): Derek Anderson, Joe Webb

Starting QB: Cam Newton threw an impressive 35 TD passes last season, and rushed in a hefty 10 additional scores on his own (296/496 for 3,837 yards, 35 TDs and 10 interceptions passing, with 132/636/10 rushing) - the 35 TD passes were a career high and the 10 rushing scores were his best tally since his 2011 rookie campaign. All this, done without his number one wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, who went down to a torn ACL during a joint practice with the Dolphins during 2015 preseason. Oh, and he won the NFL MVP award during 2015, and the Offensive Player of the Year, after being the first NFL quarterback, ever, to throw for over 30 TDs and rush for 10 TDs in a single season. What a season! However, it is fair to note that TD passes are extremely hard to predict, and Newton's prior career high was 24 TD passes in a season. There is room for regression in this area, but the Panthers have added more talent at wide receiver and tight end during the offseason/NFL Draft - tight end Beau Sandland (Montana State) arrived in the seventh round and provides depth behind Greg Olsen. Undrafted free agent Keyarris Garrett led the NCAA in receiving for Tulsa as a fifth-year senior, catching 96 passes for 1,588 yards and eight touchdowns. Receivers Devin Funchess and Benjamin will enter their second NFL regular season together - there is no lack of young talent on this roster for Newton to exploit. We'll see how Newton rebounds from a rough outing in the Super Bowl loss to Denver.

Backup QB: Derek Anderson wasn't called on much during Cam Newton's historic 2015 campaign (4/6 for 37 yards passing, with seven rushes for -2 yards) but he won two starts back in 2014 when Newton was injured (65/97 for 701 yards passing, five TDs and zero interceptions, with 8/24/0 rushing). Anderson is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL, with over a decade of experience as a starter and a backup in the league (he's been backing up Newton since Newton arrived in Carolina back in 2011 - Anderson is well-versed in the Panthers' offensive scheme). He can help bridge any gaps in Newton's availability if such should arise. Joe Webb is a multi-faceted tweener who has played both wide receiver and quarterback during his time in organized football - he fills the roles of special teamer, reserve wide receiver, and emergency quarterback for the Panthers, and was re-signed to a two-year contract on March 8, 2016, by Carolina. He last attempted regular-season NFL passes while with the Minnesota Vikings back in 2011.

Running Backs

Starter: Jonathan Stewart
Backup(s): Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, Brandon Wegher
Fullback(s): Mike Tolbert, Devon Johnson [R]

Starting RB: Jonathan Stewart made it most of the way through the 2016 season, managing to appear in 13 games and generating 242/989/6 rushing while seeing 21 targets for 16/99/1 receiving during that span (he sat out weeks 15-17 after the Panthers had locked up the first seed in the NFC). Stewart finished 2015 as the 16th-ranked fantasy running back in the NFL, his best finish since 2009, and capped his season with a TD during the Super Bowl 50 loss to Denver. One has to go back to 2011 to find a full 16-game season contributed by Stewart - he has appeared in 13 games per season over the past two years, but fantasy owners investing in Stewart need to have a good alternative on the roster as he is far from a lock to appear in all the games during 2016. Cam Newton ran in 10 TDs last year and averages 8.6 rushing TDs per season, which limits the number of rushing scores fantasy owners can expect from the Panthers' running backs - last season Carolina scored 19 rushing TDs (first in the NFL) of which Stewart claimed six (31.5%). In short, the fantasy ceiling of Stewart (especially in the rushing TDs department) is dragged down by virtue of being a teammate of Newton.

Backup RBs: Carolina was second in the NFL last season with 2,282 yards rushing as a squad, and first in the NFL with 19 rushing scores. However, Cam Newton accounted for 636 yards rushing and 10 of the rushing scores, leaving 1,646 yards rushing and nine rushing scores to be divided up among the running backs. Jonathan Stewart claimed 242/989/6 rushing, leaving around 650 rushing yards and three TDs as table scraps for the backup running backs - getting the picture here? There isn't much room at the table for other mouths among the Panthers' rushers. Cameron Artis-Payne (seven games appeared in, with 45/183/1 rushing and 5/58/0 receiving) and Fozzy Whittaker (15 games appeared in, with 25/108/1 rushing and 12/64/0 receiving) did some spot duty late in the NFL season as Carolina rested Jonathan Stewart for their playoff run, but neither got over 250 yards combined and each had a single rushing TD on the season. Veteran fullback Mike Tolbert (see below) is actually one of the main backups to Jonathan Stewart. Wegher is intriguing because the team used a 53-man roster on him all year despite not using him. He could move up the depth chart if he has developed whatever it is the team sees in him.

Fullback: Mike Tolbert has been the backup to Jonathan Stewart for several years now, and that remained true during the 2015 season as he was second among the team's running backs/fullbacks with 62/256/1 rushing and 23 targets for 18/154/3 receiving - Tolbert actually had more targets, receptions, reception yardage and receiving TDs than Stewart managed last season. Tolbert compiled 410 yards combined from scrimmage last season. He is one of a handful of productive fullbacks left in the NFL, and could be worth a spot start here and there in the event that Stewart misses one or more games during 2016. The Panthers gave UDFA FB/RB Devon Johnson a $20,000 bonus to join them, so they might think the bruising runner will have a real shot of unseating Tolbert with a good camp.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn
Backups: Corey Brown, Brenton Bersin, Keyarris Garrett [R], Kevin Norwood, Damiere Byrd

Starting WRs: Kelvin Benjamin tore an ACL during an joint practice with the Dolphins during 2015 preseason, and missed all of last year's run into the Super Bowl. He posted some promising numbers as a rookie back in 2014 - 145 targets for 73/1,008/9 receiving - and will enter the 2016 training camp as the favorite to be the #1 wide receiver for Cam Newton during the upcoming season. He is said to have recovered from the reconstructive knee surgery well, and participated in the mid-April organized team activities. He has fully participated in training camp, but still has some conditioning issues to overcome to be able to play a full game heading into the season. Devin Funchess enters his second year in the NFL off a five-TD rookie season (63 targets for 31/473/5) in which he played all 16 games. All five of his TDs came from Week Nine forwards, and he capped regular season with his first 100+-yards receiving effort vs. Tampa Bay (eight targets for 7/120/1). In other words, Funchess steadily improved throughout his rookie season and enters this campaign ready to challenge for a role in the starting mix for the Panthers, even given Ginn's success last season. The training camp/preseason competition between the top three receivers (Benjamin, Ginn, Funchess) should be entertaining and worth watching from a fantasy owners' perspective. Reports out of camp have Funchess well ahead of Ginn for a starting job, and some think that Funchess may actually challenge Benjamin for the #1 wide receiver job - Funchess has had the best camp of the three potential starters as of mid-August. Ted Ginn was forced into the #1 wide receiver role for Carolina last season when Benjamin went down, and Ginn did a good enough job that Carolina appeared in the Super Bowl - Ginn racked up 97 targets for 44/736/10 receiving, set a career high in TD receptions, and wound up the 25th-best fantasy wide receiver in the land during 2015. He was also with the Panthers during 2013, when he handled 68 targets for 36/556/5 receiving - 15 of his 21 TD receptions so far during Ginn's 9-year NFL career have come to him during his two seasons as a Panther.

Backup WRs: Corey Brown showed some improvement in his numbers last season, doubling his TD receptions from two to four, and adding 10 more receptions during his second season to wind up with 54 targets for 31/447/4 receiving - but by the end of the season was in a third wide receiver/complementary role behind Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess - Brown never had more than three receptions in any game, didn't go over 100 yards receiving at all last season, and had less than 25 yards receiving in six of his 14 games played. He is not a fantasy star entering 2016, and appears buried on the depth chart behind Ginn, Funchess and Benjamin. Brenton Bersin is a reserve wide receiver who has averaged less than one reception per game during his two-year NFL career. Undrafted free agent Keyarris Garrett led the NCAA in receiving during 2015 for Tulsa as a fifth-year senior, catching 96 passes for 1,588 yards and eight touchdowns. If he can pick up the Panthers' system and stick with the team, he could make an impact at this level - he has more potential upside than the reserves currently in front of him on the depth chart. The team traded a seventh-round 2017 pick to Seattle for Norwood, and they have to give up the pick because Norwood spent all season on the roster. He could make the team as Jerricho Cotchery's possession slot receiver replacement. Damiere Byrd was on the 53-man roster for a cup of coffee last year and he has returned with added muscle and praise from wide receiver coach Ricky Proehl, so he can't be counted completely out either.

Tight Ends

Starters: Greg Olsen
Backups: Ed Dickson, Beau Sandland [R], Marcus Lucas, Scott Simonson, Braxton Deaver, Jake McGee

Greg Olsen led the Panthers in targets, receptions, and receiving yards as Cam Newton's number one target during 2015 (124 targets for 77/1,104/7), and set career highs for targets and yards per reception (14.3). He was the fourth-best fantasy tight end for the second year in a row with those numbers - suffice it to say that Olsen is central to the Panthers' productive offensive scheme. This is not surprising - Olsen saw 123 targets for a career-high 84 receptions during 2014 (84/1,008/6), exactly matching then-rookie Kelvin Benjamin in the yardage department that season. Even though Carolina has loaded up with tight end prospects for the beginning of 2016 OTAs/training camp (five new faces at last count, led by seventh-round draft pick Beau Sandland, see below), Olsen is secure atop the depth chart with a contract that runs through 2018 (he received a $12 million signing bonus when he re-upped with Carolina in 2015). Ed Dickson is a seasoned veteran who began his career in Baltimore during 2010 - since arriving in Carolina two seasons ago Dickson has seen sparse targets (17 targets for 10/115/1 receiving during 2014; 26 for 17/121/2 during 2015) and he is mainly a blocker for the Panthers. Beau Sandland was at Miami University before transferring to Montana State for his senior collegiate campaign - he snagged 37/632/9 in that final campaign (17.1 yards per reception). He is, like most rookie tight ends, a developmental prospect but if he sticks on the roster he will enjoy time to grow into a NFL player behind a seasoned veteran in Olsen. Olsen stated in mid-May "I welcome the opportunity (to mentor younger tight ends). I'll always do everything within my power to help them improve and be the best that they can be. And at the same time make it really hard for them to ever beat me out." The team could also keep a fourth tight end from a group that includes converted WR Marcus Lucas, 2015 Super Bowl participant Scott Simonson, and oft-injured but promising receiving prospect UDFA Braxton Deaver.

Place Kicker

Graham Gano: Gano was the second-highest scoring kicker in the league with a career-high 146 points, trailing only Stephen Gostkowski. He was 30-for-36 on field goal attempts, which is adequate but not excellent. The Panthers gave him a whopping 59 extra point attempts, and Gano was able to make 56 of them. He has no competition on the roster and should be in line for a top scoring opportunity again. Gano deserves to be picked in the 6-10 range at kicker.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Ted Ginn, Damiere Byrd, Fozzy Whittaker

Ted Ginn has typically handled kickoffs as well as punts, but with his importance to a receiver-starved offense, the Panthers took those duties off his plate in 2015. Instead, they gave them to Fozzy Whittaker and Joe Webb. The return of Kelvin Benjamin seems to have freed Ginn back up to resume returns in 2016.

Punt Returners: Ted Ginn, Damiere Byrd

While he's never lived up to his draft position as a receiver, Ted Ginn has over 12,000 career all-purpose yards thanks to his consistent work as a return man. He's topped 250 punt return yards in six straight seasons and, barring injury, should make it seven in 2016.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Michael Oher, LG Andrew Norwell, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Daryl Williams
Key Backups: Mike Remmers, David Yankey, Gino Gradkowski, David Foucault

The Panthers' offensive line has several strong points. The cohesion is top notch, as they are returning all of last year's starters. A big strength is the center position, which is manned by arguably the best center in the game, in All-Pro and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Kalil didn't get to go to Hawaii (and neither did right guard Trai Turner, his first honor) as both were preparing to play the Super Bowl two weeks later. Those two players are the strength of the unit. Left tackle Michael Oher had a quietly solid year, and the team believes in left guard Andrew Norwell to continue to improve. Right tackle Mike Remmers will face a battle from last year's draft pick Daryl Williams, and most observers expect the more physically gifted Williams to take that job sooner rather than later. The Panthers' offensive line is better going forward (run blocking) than in pass protection, and the team will look to play to these strengths this season. Tier Ranking: Top Tier.

Team Defense

The Panthers defense teamed up with Cam Newton to lead the team to a Super Bowl. They led the league in interceptions (24), they were second in forced fumbles (20), sixth in scoring defense, and fourth in rushing yards allowed. All-pro corner Josh Norman was lost when the team rescinded his franchise tag, but the strong interior defensive line and linebacker corps is still intact, and the Panthers defense should still be on the best in the league. Good enough to justify their top 5 ADP in early drafts is a tougher question, but opening against the Broncos and probably Mark Sanchez, even on the road, and then following up with the 49ers in the home opener should reward fantasy players who make the plunge.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Star Lotulelei, UT Kawann Short, DE Charles Johnson, DE Kony Ealy
Backups: DT Paul Soliai, DE Mario Addison, DT Vernon Butler [R], DE Arthur Miley, DE Ryan Delaire, DE Wes Horton, DT Robert Thomas, DT Kyle Love

Starting DL: The defensive front is the straw that stirs the drink in Carolina's fearsome defense. It all starts with the interior duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who have grown together into a disruptive pair of game wreckers. Short produced his finest season as a pro in 2015, recording 11 sacks, 36 solo tackles and 19 assists. He was a big reason behind the Panthers' Super Bowl run. The team is eager to lock him up to a long-term deal and reportedly contract talks have begun in earnest. Lotulelei is the less flashy of the two, but arguably does just as important a job for the team, occupying blockers and creating space for the players around him. When the Panthers defense was without him for short periods last season, they struggled to keep their run fits. The team picked up the fifth-year option on his contract this offseason and the plan is presumably to keep he and Short together for the long term. Defensive end Charles Johnson was re-signed to a team-friendly deal after a brief splash in the free agent pool. He finished the 2015 campaign strongly after a mediocre regular season, and he should be a solid contributor, if not a true difference maker as a pass rusher. The Panthers' Super Bowl MVP would have been Kony Ealy had they won, as the young pass rusher flashed his immense potential on the biggest stage. Ealy has been something of a tease for the team since being drafted in the second round in 2014, but things seemed to click for him last season. He will act as the Panthers' main pass rushing threat in 2016 from right defensive end.

Backup DL: The departures of Dwan Edwards and Jared Allen meant the Panthers had to dip into free agency for some veteran options. They did just that, scooping up former Falcons defensive tackle Paul Soliai to plug the middle and act as a rotational body in the front four. The team is returning most of the backups from last year, with speed rusher Mario Addison and Ryan Delaire, who flashed for a brief spell in 2015, the main threats off the edge. Delaire is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, however, which may slow his development. Robert Thomas, picked up via waivers before the draft, and Kyle Love will provide decent depth on the interior. First round selection Vernon Butler is the pick of the bunch talent-wise, and his motor and athleticism should provide an instant boost when the Panthers are in subpackage defenses. There will be very little drop-off if Lotulelei or Short comes off the field with Butler waiting in the wings.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis, WLB Shaq Thompson
Backups: LB Ben Jacobs, LB A.J. Klein, LB David Mayo, LB Jeremy Cash [R]

Starting LBs: Widely hailed as one of the most complete and talented linebacker corps in the league, the Panthers return all three starters from their Super Bowl run. With another offseason of experience under his belt, Shaq Thompson is expected to assume the starting role at weakside linebacker, allowing him to flow to the football and use his terrific speed to make plays. Thomas Davis will man the strongside linebacker spot, but the career-long Panther is expected to be a fixture in subpackages. Davis may have lost a half step recently, but he is still more than capable of chasing down ballcarriers and making a huge impact in every facet of the game. When it comes to impact, however, there may be no better example than Luke Kuechly. The All-Pro has outdone himself season after season. Statistics proved that at one point last season opposing quarterbacks would have been better off throwing into the dirt rather than targeting Kuechly in coverage. Kuechly is the undisputed leader of this defense and is a virtual lock for 100+ tackles in 2016. He underwent surgery for a torn labrum but is expected to be full-go for training camp.

Backup LBs: A.J. Klein has been a trustworthy option for the Panthers to lean on in the past, and he deputised very well in Luke Kuechly's concussion-enforced absence last year. Klein is not the coverage player Thomas Davis or Kuechly is, but he is a willing competitor and a safe pair of hands. David Mayo primarily played special teams in his rookie year but will be expected to compete for the backup middle linebacker job in 2016 against Ben Jacobs, another special teams ace. Undrafted free agent signing Jeremy Cash, who played a position called 'strike safety' at Duke, will be a linebacker according to the coaching staff. With a player in Davis who made the same transition from safety to linebacker coming out of college already on the roster, Cash has the perfect mentor to make a quick transition.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Bene Benwikere, CB Robert McClain, SS Kurt Coleman, FS Tre Boston
Backups: CB Daryl Worley [R], CB Zack Sanchez [R], CB Teddy Williams, S Colin Jones, S Trenton Robinson, S Dean Marlowe, CB James Bradberry [R]

Starting DBs: Every year the Panthers' depth chart at defensive back seems to be lacking talent, but every year they manage to cobble together a line-up good enough to win the division. The losses of veterans Roman Harper and Charles Tillman may translate to a taller task in 2016, however, as it seems likely a rookie will be forced to start. Bene Benwikere is recovering from a broken leg sustained in December but according to reports he will be given the first shot to start on the outside. Benwikere has excelled in a slot cornerback role, but at six foot tall he is considered long enough to compete against bigger receivers. The cornerback spot opposite Benwikere is wide open, but second round selection James Bradberry will be given the first crack due to his length and ball skills. He will have to beat out Robert McClain, who started after Charles Tillman went out last year. Bradberry may have to endure a baptism by fire going from Samford to the pro level, but the Panthers' zone coverages can give him additional support and not expose him too often. Training camp has seen Bradberry and fellow rookie Daryl Worley excelling, which may result in two rookie cornerbacks starting on the outside and Benwikere moving inside. Opposing offenses will try to attack the weaknesses, and safety tandem Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston will be responsible for cleaning up any errors. Coleman, who signed a new deal with the team prior to training camp, outdid himself last season, totaling seven interceptions and making a huge impact as a run defender in a top tier defense. He will be expected to take over the veteran communicator role vacated by Harper. Boston, meanwhile, will man the free safety position. The Panthers like Dean Marlowe and targeted Trenton Robinson in free agency, however, so Boston may face more competition than Coleman.

Backup DBs: In the latter stages of 2015, the Panthers faced a full-blown crisis at the cornerback position and were forced into signing street free agents Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain. The pair had their moments, but were exposed by opposing offenses on many occasions. Brandon Boykin was signed to provide depth on the outside and to be the primary slot cornerback, but the team cut bait with him in May. Colin Jones, a safety/cornerback hybrid, has been asked to play the slot in recent seasons, but he lacks the speed and range to effectively take away quick-twitch athletes. McClain was retained this offseason after latching on late in 2015; he could compete for an outside cornerback job if the rookies drafted do not pan out. The youth movement at the position consists of three cornerbacks, drafted in consecutive picks. Daryl Worley, like James Bradberry, is a tall cornerback capable of affecting the passing game and making plays on the football. Worley has been excelling in camp and could even carve out a starting role. Zack Sanchez, meanwhile, profiles as more of a slot cornerback option. He will be asked to earn his stripes on special teams before his gambler's mentality as a cornerback can be exploited by opposing quarterbacks. Trenton Robinson and Dean Marlowe is an interesting pair of back-up options at safety, with reports suggesting the coaching staff is high on Marlowe's potential.

Last modified: 2016-08-29 10:16:23