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2017 Team Report: Carolina Panthers
Offensive PhilosophySince Cam Newton was first drafted, the Panthers' offense has characteristically been reliant on deep passing and power running, led by a committee of backs and their bulldozer of a quarterback. 2016 gave us signs that the team was ready to start moving away from this, with Newton setting a career high in pass attempts per game and a career low in rush attempts per game. Spending a top-10 draft pick on Christian McCaffrey gives us another sign that the team is looking to replace some of Newton's runs with the kind of short, high-percentage passing game most other teams employ to help protect their hefty investment at quarterback.
QuarterbacksStarter: Cam Newton
Backup(s): Derek Anderson, Joe Webb Starting QB: The first item to cover while considering Cam Newton's 2017 prospects is his ongoing recovery from right shoulder rotator cuff surgery. Footballguys.com's Jene Bramel explained in his May 4 update to the Offseason Injury Rounds that: 'Undoubtedly, all involved were cautiously optimistic Newton's partial rotator cuff injury would heal without surgery. But when you're franchise quarterback continues to feel pain while throwing after rehab, there's little choice remaining. Avoiding surgery at that point risks further damage to the rotator cuff and / or a cascade injury somewhere else due to a likely subtle change in Newton's throwing mechanics. The Panthers are saying Newton will return in time for camp. They're also saying he won't be allowed to throw with the team until 16 weeks after his end of March surgery. Expect the Panthers and Newton to be very cautious with his rehab. Recovery from shoulder surgeries in overhead throwing athletes can be tricky. Four months before throwing with the team means the end of July, as training camp begins. If Newton meets that goal, it's a great indicator he'll be at full strength as the season begins. But I expect Newton will be brought along very slowly in the early days of camp and may well not participate in preseason games until late August. May 4 Update: General manager Dave Gettleman told reporters in mid-April Newton is "on schedule" for training camp.' What all the above means is that fantasy owners drafting before late August may not have seen Newton in game-speed action after the surgery/rehab. This is something to keep in mind as we consider how badly Newton's numbers cratered from 2015 (296/496 for 3,837 yards, 35 TDs and 10 interceptions passing, with 132/636/10 rushing) to 2016 (270/510 for 3,509 yards, 19 TDs with 14 interceptions thrown, and 90/359/5 rushing). Newton was the 17th-ranked fantasy quarterback during 2016, friends. Newton enters his seventh year in the league this season, so missing some of the preseason games isn't a huge concern, but his passing shoulder situation is an item to closely monitor if you are considering Newton as your fantasy quarterback here in 2017. Also of concern - the Panthers' depth chart at wide receiver (see below) isn't scintillating, especially with the departure of Ted Ginn Jr. to NFC South rival New Orleans during free agency. 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 appeared in two games during 2016 (Weeks Four and Five, both losses for the Panthers), and wound up with 26/53 for 453 yards passing, two TDs and five interceptions thrown. 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 again during 2017. 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 BacksStarter: Christian McCaffrey [R]
Backup(s): Jonathan Stewart, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne
Fullback(s): Darrel Young, Alexander Armah [R] Starting RB: After being picked eighth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, Christian McCaffrey signed a four year, $17.224 million contract with Carolina on May 4 - there will be no protracted negotiations to worry about as he takes over as the lead running back for the Panthers this year. McCaffrey had 632/3,922/21 rushing and 99 receptions at Stanford (with two return TDs as well) - he is a proficient dual-threat back. Additionally, McCaffrey comes from a NFL family (former Broncos' receiver Ed McCaffrey is his dad) so he's seen the grind of the pro game up-close-and-personal - he should be more ready for the off-field challenges of the league than any given prospect from a non-NFL home. He should be a three-down back for the Panthers, though they may prefer veteran Jonathan Stewart in short yardage/goal-line situations. Backup RBs: As he did in 2015 (242/989/6 rushing while seeing 21 targets for 16/99/1 receiving), Jonathan Stewart managed to appear in 13 games last season for the Panthers, piling up 218/824/9 rushing with 21 targets for 8/60/0 receiving to his credit. Now 30 years old, Stewart has played nine seasons in the league, and the Panthers made a move in the first round of the 2017 draft to get younger at this key position. Stewart likely has a role as the short yardage/goal line back for the Panthers this year as he mentors the heir apparent, McCaffrey. Fozzy Whittaker set career highs in rushing and receiving last season, his third campaign with Carolina, managing 57/265/0 rushing and 25/226/0 receiving on 33 targets. He is a capable reserve back who can step in for a player higher on the depth chart who may get banged up in a game (or be knocked out of action for a few games). Cameron Artis-Payne managed 36/144/2 rushing with one target for 1/11/0 receiving in an occasional role for the Panthers last year (he appeared in three games during regular season). Fullback: Young didn't make it out of training camp with the Bears last season after starting his career in Washington, but was signed to a futures contract with Carolina - he is seen as the top candidate to take over for departed, long-time Panthers' fullback Mike Tolbert. Alexander Armah is a sixth-round draft pick from Western Georgia - he'll have to really impress during training camp to secure a roster spot in September. Armah may wind up on the practice squad for 2017.
Wide ReceiversStarters: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess
Backups: Curtis Samuel [R], Brenton Bersin, Russell Shepard, Keyarris Garrett, Damiere Byrd, Charles Johnson Starting WRs: Kelvin Benjamin's fifth-year option (for 2018) was picked up by the Panthers on May 2, 2017. There had been speculation that this move would not happen because Benjamin reported to a post-NFL-Draft OTA 'a little heavy' according to head coach Ron Rivera. Benjamin's conditioning was not elite during 2016 according to multiple accounts out of Charlotte - he's going to have to do much better this season than his 2016 line of 118 targets for 63/941/7 receiving if he's to generate a big-money second contract at the pro level. Stay tuned to see how 'in shape' Benjamin is when training camp opens - another report of being over-weight/under-conditioned would be a red flag here, friends. Devin Funchess had a lot of buzz coming out of 2016 training camp, but fizzled during regular season with just 58 targets for a mere 23/371/4 receiving (that's a dismal 39.6% reception percentage, folks). He was also just under 50% receiving during his rookie season of 2015 (63 targets for 31/473/5) but instead of elevating his game, he took a step back in his sophomore NFL season. He is far from a lock to stay in a starting role during 2017. Additionally, there is an injury concern here to look out for as preseason/training camp continues - Funchess wound up the season on IR due to a knee injury suffered on Saturday, December 24, 2016. Stay tuned as preseason goes along to monitor his rehab from that late-season problem. Suffice it to say, there will be plenty of fluidity on the Panthers' depth chart at wide receiver this preseason - it looks like the backups may have opportunity to rise up the depth chart as neither starter has posted convincing performances in the recent past. Also, the departure of Ted Ginn Jr. to New Orleans opens up a slot at third wideout - he saw 95 targets for 54/752/4 receiving during 2016. Backup WRs: As noted above, the Panthers' depth chart at wide receiver is far from set in stone was we gear up for preseason/training camp. There are six main competitors who will be pushing to move up the depth chart during 2017. Curtis Samuel is a rookie from Ohio State who projects as a wide receiver for the Panthers - he was selected early in the second round of the draft (#40) and signed a $6.453 million contract with $4.056 million guaranteed shortly after the draft, so he'll enjoy a full preseason/training camp of preparation for the upcoming season. He has also done duty as a running back in college and fits the multi-faceted role that the Panthers like to see from players on their depth charts (like Joe Webb). Samuel may wind up in a starting role if he impresses during preseason/training camp. Brenton Berson (six targets for 2/17/0 receiving over 10 games played during 2016) and Damiere Byrd (one target for 1/16/0 receiving over one game played during 2016) were both active during regular season, while Keyarris Garrett spent 2016 on the Panthers' practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract on January 2, 2017. Garrett led the nation in receiving (collegiate) at Tulsa during 2015 and had a good combine showing, but didn't crack the 53-man roster last year. These three Panthers have experience with the Panthers' staff and will press for more playing time during 2017. Russell Shepard arrived during 2017 free agency with a three-year, $10.5 million contract (he left the Buccaneers after playing four seasons in Tampa) - he posted his best season in Tampa Bay during 2016 (23/341/2 receiving while playing in 14 games). Shepard also plays special teams and has a role there, so he's likely to stick on the 53-man roster due to the special teams angle - but as noted before the depth chart in Carolina is far from settled at this position. He's another guy to watch during training camp. Charles Johnson arrived to Carolina after the Vikings let the restricted free agent hit the open market back in March - he has a one-year 'prove-it' contract worth $2.2 million. As a rookie in 2014 Johnson posted 59 targets for 31/475/2 receiving, but then disappointed over the next two seasons with 13 targets for 9/127/0 receiving during 2015 and 37 targets for 20/232/0 receiving during 2016. We'll see if the change of address helps jump-start Johnson's stalling pro career.
Tight EndsStarters: Greg Olsen
Backups: Ed Dickson, Scott Simonson, Chris Manhertz Olsen is the first tight end in NFL history to string together three 1,000+ yards-receiving seasons in a row - he's been a model of consistency in Carolina during that record-setting run, seeing 123 targets for 84/1,008/6 receiving during 2014; 124 for 77/1,104/7 during 2015 and 129 for 80/1,073/3 during 2016. He should remain an elite tight end for fantasy owners this year (he led the Panthers in receiving last year - no wide receiver went over 1,000 yards receiving last season). Olsen may once again wind up the most valuable fantasy pass receiver for Carolina again this year given the sorry state of the wide receivers' stable. Unsurprisingly, given the 129 targets that flowed to Greg Olsen last season, Carolina's backup tight end, Ed Dickson, had a paltry few chances to catch the football during 2016 (19 targets for 10/134/1 receiving). Since arriving in Carolina from Baltimore for the 2014 season, Dickson has never gone over 150 yards receiving in a season for the Panthers, and his highest TD total in a season with the Panthers has been two TDs caught during 2015. Suffice it so say that if Dickson is in a starting lineup for your fantasy team, you must be really hurting at tight end. Scott Simonson has been active for 14 games out of the last 32 played by the Panthers, and he caught zero passes during the five he appeared in for the Panthers last season. He's buried on the depth chart in Carolina. In a similar vein, Chris Manhertz was active for seven games last season, but managed just one catch for 10 yards. Neither of these guys belongs on a fantasy roster at this time unless you are in a super-deep dynasty league.
Place KickerGraham Gano, Harrison Butker [R]: Graham Gano had a solid scoring year because the Panthers set him up with 38 field goal attempts, but he only made 30 of them. His 3.2 million dollar salary has given the Panthers pause going into 2017, so they spent a seventh round pick on Harrison Butker. Butker made 17 of 18 attempts at Georgia Tech last year, and all 46 of his extra point tries. He also forced 54 touchbacks on 73 kickoff attempts, one of the better. He also made a 53-yard kick to send a game against rival Georgia into overtime, so he has shown some clutch kicking ability. Gano should have his hands full with the salary disparity, although the team likely break ties in favor of the veteran. The winner will have some fantasy value, but unless they win with a flawless camp, it is better to avoid this situation despite the potential for a high number of field goal attempts.
Kick and Punt ReturnersKick Returners: Fozzy Whittaker, Joe Webb With long-time returner Ted Ginn gone in 2017, secondary returner Fozzy Whittaker appears poised to take on a bigger role. Webb also handled a few kickoffs for Carolina in the past few seasons and should provide depth. Punt Returners: Brenton Bersin Ted Ginn has handled 56 of Carolina's 59 punt returns over the last two years, but he left in free agency. Receiver Brenton Bersin handled punt returns in 2014 before Ginn arrived, and could be poised to do so again.
Offensive LineProjected Starters: LT Matt Kalil, LG Andrew Norwell, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Daryl Williams
Key Backups: Michael Oher, Gino Gradkowski, Taylor Moton [R], Amini Silatolu, Tyler Larsen Right guard Trai Turner was a rock for this unit last season, moving over to right tackle when injury required a spot starter. Center Ryan Kalil suffered a decline last year but the arrival of his brother Matt to start at left tackle could spark a bounce back season for both. Left guard Andrew Norwell is a solid pro and the team is expected to give Daryl Williams the opportunity to start at right tackle. Michael Oher has not fully recovered from last season's injuries and his career could be in doubt. The team has decent interior depth with Amini Silatolu and Taylor Moton pushing the guards and Gino Gradkowski to back up at center. The Panthers line starts the season graded out as a mid-tier unit, but could move up if the Kalil brothers find form and their right tackle position solidifies.
Team DefenseThe Panthers had a steep dropoff in the win/loss column last year, but their D/ST remained among the fantasy top ten. They were second in the league in sacks, tied for second in interceptions, and they scored three times on defense. The team lost backup linebacker extraordinaire AJ Klein to the Saints, which could be a problem if there's a return of Luke Kuechly's concussion problems that cost him the last six games of 2016. Old hands Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn are back to hold down important roles in the defense, and defensive backs coach Steve Wilks was promoted to defensive coordinator to replace Sean McDermott, who left to head the Bills organization. The offseason also saw them lock down interior pass rusher Kawann Short with a long-term deal and add Mike Adams to pair up with playmaking safety Kurt Coleman. The Carolina D/ST is going in the second half of the top 10-12 and should be worth that pick as long as their very strong front seven continues to rule the line of scrimmage.
Defensive LineStarters: NT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, DE Charles Johnson, DE Julius Peppers
Backups: DT Vernon Butler, DT Kyle Love, DE Mario Addison, DE Ryan Delaire, DE Wes Horton, DE Larry Webster, DE Daeshon Hall [R] Starting DL: The Panthers wasted no time in picking up the fifth year option for stalwart defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who has been a quiet storm in the centre of the team's front four since being drafted. Eating up blockers routinely, Lotulelei's presence has allowed newly minted 3-technique Kawann Short to thrive as a pass rusher. Lotulelei underwent a clean up procedure on his shoulder this offseason, but he is expected to be ready for camp. Meanwhile, Short's deal made him the third highest paid defensive tackle in the league and is a clear signal of how well thought of he is by the organisation. After enduring something of a slow start to the 2016 season, Short quickly rebounded and looked like his explosive 2015 self as the year closed out. The bookends for the Panthers are set to be Charles Johnson, recently resigned to a team-friendly two-year deal, and the ageless wonder Julius Peppers, who is entering his 16th season. Johnson has dealt with injuries over the past couple of seasons and hasn't quite been himself, but Peppers has shown no signs of slowing down and should provide an added menace as he returns home. Backup DL: Among the priorities of Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman this offseason was retaining the services of Mario Addison, who led the team with 9.5 sacks last year. The departure of Kony Ealy to New England will free up opportunities for Addison, as well as fellow veterans Wes Horton and Ryan Delaire, the latter of whom is recovering from offseason knee surgery. On the interior, the team resigned the dependable 1-technique Kyle Love and last year's first round selection Vernon Butler is waiting in the wings and expected to take a big step forward in 2017. Daeshon Hall is a developmental player who will be brought along similarly to Charles Johnson and Addison.
LinebackersStarters: MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis, WLB Shaq Thompson
Backups: LB David Mayo, LB Jared Norris, LB Jeremy Cash, LB Brian Blechen, LB Ben Boulware [R] Starting LBs: As starting linebacker trios go, there are not many better in the league than the one in the Queen City. One of the most consistent forces in the game since being drafted, Luke Kuechly hardly needs any introductions. His year-to-year dominance and difference making plays have put him among the pantheon of greats at his position - if he can stay healthy. Therein lies the rub for Kuechly, who has a worrying concussion history over the past couple of seasons. The Panthers insist they are not concerned, but there is a sense among some experts that one more serious concussion could spell the end of his career. Thomas Davis could be playing his final season for the team, as he pledged to play out his contractual obligations; that contract runs out at the end of the season. At 34, he is still a highly effective blitzer, tackler and all-around leader and has the nous to read and react to offensive plays before they even develop. The runt of the group is Shaq Thompson, who has developed slowly but effectively in the weakside linebacker role, at times shifting to strong side when required. The athletic phenom has the chance to unseat Davis and assume a three-down role this season. Comments from defensive coordinator Steve Wilks that the plan is to reduce Davis' snap count and get Thompson on the field more will encourage the young linebacker. Backup LBs: The Panthers lost dependable backup A.J. Klein this offseason, so the depth suddenly appears less reassuring if one of the big three were to go down. David Mayo is a classic thumping middle linebacker with limited range as a pass coverage player. Jeremy Cash, formerly a safety at Duke, performed well in training camp last year to make the 53-man roster and could see an increased involvement this year as a weakside option. Jared Norris and Brian Blechen are primarily special teams aces. Undrafted free agent Ben Boulware could be a key special teams contributor immediately.
Defensive BacksStarters: CB Daryl Worley, CB James Bradberry, SS Kurt Coleman, FS Mike Adams
Backups: CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Zach Sanchez, CB Lou Young, CB Teddy Williams, S Colin Jones, S Dean Marlowe, CB Corn Elder Starting DBs: Dave Gettleman's double dip on cornerbacks in last year's draft took a while to bear fruit on the field, but by the end of 2016 he looked a lot smarter. Daryl Worley and James Bradberry were victimised at times during a rookie campaign pockmarked with errors and solid play in equal measure. Of the two, Bradberry made a bigger impression and parlayed his big, physical frame and aggressive play style into a solid campaign. Bradberry suffered a broken wrist in mini camp after a freak fall, but he is expected to be ready for camp. Worley racked up many more tackles than his counterpart, and will probably remain the player opposing offenses try to pick on. At safety, the Panthers dipped into the free agent pool to acquire Mike Adams, an aging veteran who should be able to slot in at free safety. Kurt Coleman will slide down to strong safety, a position more suited to his hard-hitting skill set. Backup DBs: Acquiring a slot cornerback to deal with the multitude of looks opposing offenses can throw at modern defenses is a must, and the Panthers stuck with a familiar option. The resigning of Captain Munnerlyn should provide a solid veteran presence among the young cornerback crew. Tre Boston was released after the draft in a sign that the team likes what they have among their backups. Corn Elder is an intriguing developmental late round draft pick who will learn from Munnerlyn. Last modified: 2017-06-19 14:15:35