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2013 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cam Newton
Backup(s): Derek Anderson, Jimmy Clausen

Starting QB: Though Cam Newton didn't fulfill the lofty expectations of many fantasy owners during 2012, he still finished as the fourth-best fantasy quarterback in the NFL due to his combination of passing (280/425 for 3,869 yards, 19 TDs and 12 interceptions) and rushing (127/741/8) abilities, edging out Peyton Manning for fourth by nine fantasy points during 2012. He was strong down the stretch, with six multiple-TD games during the final eight contests of the regular season (two passing TDs week 10; two passing TDs, two rushing TDs week 12; three passing TDs week 13; two passing TDs, one rushing TD week 14; two passing TDs week 15; and one passing TD, with one rushing TD during week 16). New offensive coordinator Mike Shula was Newton's quarterback coach last year, and Newton credits Shula with helping create his strong finish during 2012. 'I think a lot of credit goes to him with me honing in to a lot of things that he's been coaching me up to do.' Newton noted on February 1, 2013. Newton has been a top-ten fantasy quarterback in both of his NFL seasons, and should be a fantasy force again during 2013.

Backup QB: Derek Anderson joined the Panthers two years ago, and has seen light duty since arriving as the backup/veteran mentor to Cam Newton. He threw four passes in mop-up duty last year, with 4/4 for 58 yards, with zero TDs, zero interceptions and zero rushes. As long as Newton stays healthy, Anderson will be a fantasy non-entity. Jimmy Clausen hasn't touched a football for the Panthers during regular season since posting 157/299 for 1,558 yards, three TDs and nine interceptions passing during Carolina's ill-fated 2010 season (Carolina won two games that year). Clausen ended preseason by being placed on IR - he won't play this year and may be offered an injury settlement at some point.

Running Backs

Starter: Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams
Backup(s): Tauren Poole, Kenjon Barner
Fullback(s): Mike Tolbert

Starting RB: 2012 was not an auspicious year for Carolina's tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart - quarterback Cam Newton led the team in rushing with 127/741/8 on the ground, compared to 173/737/5 rushing and 20 targets for 13/187/2 receiving for Williams, the team's number two rusher last year. Jonathan Stewart (nine games played with 93/336/1 rushing and 17/157/1 receiving last season) struggled with injuries (again), sustaining a left ankle sprain that sidelined him from week 13 forwards. Stewart had corrective surgery on the ankle January 12, 2013. The team must have liked the outcome of the surgery as they renegotiated Stewart's contract in February, in which course Stewart received a $2.5 million signing bonus and got his 2014 $1.5 million base salary fully guaranteed. Williams restructured his deal in mid-May and lowered his cap number for 2013 by over $3 million, probably keeping him on the team for this year at least (and perhaps into the future - his contract cap value was also lowered in 2014 and 2015). In mid-June reports emerged that Stewart was not able to work during OTAs and that Williams was seeing a lot of reps as the first running back in Stewart's absence. Stewart has been placed on the PUP list to open regular season due to ongoing issues with his right ankle (and he may or may not be activated in the middle of the year), so as of week one regular season Williams will be the main back for the Panthers.

Backup RBs: Tauren Poole is an undrafted free agent from Tennessee who spent his rookie season on the Panthers' IR due to injured ribs - he won the Pat Tillman award at the 2012 East-West Shrine game, but hasn't garnered any accolades at the pro level yet. Kenjon Barner is a rookie out of Oregon selected at #182 in the 2013 NFL draft, and figures to be a special teams player with perhaps some snaps in third down situations. FB Mike Tolbert is really the Panthers' backup running back (see FB writeup below).

Fullback: Mike Tolbert, who was a valuable role player for the San Diego Chargers before joining the Panthers last year, handled 54/183/7 rushing and 27/268/0 receiving in his first season with Carolina. He is the team's backup as well as a powerful goal-line option for the Panthers. During his first year with the Panthers Tolbert had just one less rushing TD than quarterback Cam Newton. Tolbert struggled with a hamstring injury during training camp, but started practicing again as of September 2 and is expected to be in the mix each week as DeAngelo Williams' backup.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell
Backups: Domenik Hixon, Armanti Edwards, Ted Ginn

Starting WRs: Steve Smith kept on playing at a high level during 2012, with 138 targets for 73/1,174/4 receiving over 16 games played for Carolina. It was his second straight 1,000+ yards-receiving season in as many years - Smith has prospered since Cam Newton arrived to start under center for the Panthers. With career journeymen receivers Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon behind the 34 year-old Smith, it looks like Smith is a lock to be the lead receiver for Carolina again this year (as long as he can hold off Father Time/the injury bug). Smith has played all 16 games for the last two years - he's been remarkably durable of late. Brandon LaFell was Smith's counterpart for 14 games last year, posting 76 targets for 44/677/5 receiving (career highs in receptions, yards and TDs), and he's penciled in to be the #2 wide receiver for the Panthers again this year. However, the arrival of Domenik Hixon from the New York Giants could change the depth chart if Hixon can pick up the offense quickly enough - LaFell has never caught more than 44 balls during his three NFL seasons to date. LaFell is not entrenched as a starter in Carolina.

Backup WRs: Domenik Hixon arrived in Carolina after the Panthers awarded him a one-year contract April 3, 2013. Hixon played in place of an often-dinged-up Hakeem Nicks for the Giants during 2012, posting 59 targets for 39/567/2 in the part-time role. He's been an important role player for the Giants (when healthy) during his time in New York (2007-2012), but he has had his right ACL reconstructed twice - injury history is a worry with Hixon, fantasy owners. Armanti Edwards (5/121/0 receiving in Carolina last year) and Ted Ginn (four targets for 2/1/0 receiving in San Francisco last year) are primarily special teams players - Ginn is a noted kick and punt returner, but he hasn't seen more than 19 receptions in a season since 2009, back when he was with the Dolphins.

Tight Ends

Starters: Greg Olsen
Backups: Ben Hartsock

Greg Olsen claimed a larger share of the Panthers' targets (104) and receptions (69/843/5) last season in his second campaign with the team. He set career highs in receptions and yards gained last year (his previous highs were 107 targets for 60/612/8 with the Bears during 2009). Olsen had just four less receptions than #1 wide receiver Steve Smith last year - he is heavily involved from the tight end position, and handled 25 more receptions than the Panthers' #2 wide receiver, Brandon LaFell, last year. Olsen is a fixture as the Panthers' starting tight end - during his six-year NFL career, Olsen has been among the top-ten fantasy tight ends three times, including his sixth place finish last year. Ben Hartsock is a blocking tight end who rarely handles passes - he is no threat to Olsen's starting job.

Place Kicker

Graham Gano: Three returning starters. Last year, kicker Graham Gano hit 9 of 11 field goals over the last six games after replacing Justin Medlock. At holder/punter Brad Nortman enters his second year. J.J. Jansen remains the long snapper. The Panthers climbed to 18th in kicker scoring opportunities in 2011 after having been in the bottom third in 4 of the 5 previous years. Last year it was back to the bottom at 31st.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Kenjon Barner, Kealoha Pilares, Tiquan Underwood, Jerricho Cotchery

The free agency loss of Ted Ginn to Arizona leaves looming question marks in the return game for Carolina. The team's draft class likely holds few options as the entire class totals 4 punt returns between them. Kenjon Barner would be the next kick returner on last season's depth chart. Receiver Kealoha Pilares has been the primary returner for the team before but the team went away from him in part due to injury difficulties in recent years. Veteran arrivals may offer the most challenge for the job. Jerricho Cotchery broke into the league as an above average kickoff returner, but with lack of depth at receiver the team may not wish to risk him. Tiquan Underwood is the other veteran option, having returned 24 kickoffs for Jacksonville in 2010 with a 23.4 yard average. Underwood has failed in recent opportunities to win return jobs that were up for grabs, so Barner and Pilares are the favorites until we see how preseason plays out.

Punt Returners: Jerricho Cotchery, Corey Brown [R]

The lack of punt return experience on the team make this position a crap shoot until we get a look at preseason or a coach lets something slip about their plans. Jerricho Cotchery has 54 career returns with a 9 yard average, but as with kick returns the team may be reluctant to expose him to additional injury risk. Undrafted rookie wide receiver Corey Brown has 47 punts with two scores in his college resume, so should probably be in the preseason mix with the lack of other punt return experience on the team.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Jordan Gross, LG Amini Silatolu, C Ryan Kalil, RG Geoff Hangartner, RT Byron Bell
Key Backups: T Bruce Campbell, T Thomas Austin, G Hayworth Hicks, G Edmund Kugbila, C Jeff Byers

On the surface, the story of the Carolina Panthers offensive line is a boring one. They return the same five starters as last year. But dig deeper there are issues. Recently left tackle Jordan Gross took a payout to stay with the team. Gross is a former All-Pro who is slipping from that form as he ages. He was once a top five left tackle, now he's more like a top ten type of talent. Gross will have lock down games but they all aren't gems. Center Ryan Kalil is another former All-Pro who had a disaster of a season in 2012. Kalil took out a full-page ad guaranteeing a Super Bowl, and then went down for the year with a Lisfranc fracture. Kalil was also approached about a pay-cut, which he accepted in the offseason. Kalil is expected to be a full participant in training camp, but is another player who bears watching. When these two players are good, the Panthers line can be elite, especially in the running game. Left guard Amini Silatolu had an up and down campaign as a rookie, starting out of training camp, but eventually was placed on the injured reserve with a dislocated wrist. Silatolu will face competition from feisty fourth rounder Edmund Kugbila out of Valdosta State. Right guard Geoff Hangartner is a decent option, as long as he is not playing center. Byron Bell is a serviceable right tackle, who is generally underrated. Bell will sometimes succumb to elite pass rushers but actually received more money from the team this offseason through the performance-based bonus program. Swing tackle Bruce Campbell is an interesting prospect, as he has rare foot speed and can pass protect extremely well, given the opportunity. Campbell, still only 24, plays as an extra tight end and actually has the speed to be used in pass patterns. While Campbell has glaring technical deficiencies, the team could be looking him as a possible long-term replacement for the thirty-three year-old Gross. Should injury strike, depth such as Jeff Byers, Garry Williams and Thomas Austin are not reliable as starters. Overall this line is ranked highly but definitely has questions.

Team Defense

In Carolina, we find a defense that is average against the run (they finished 15th in 2012) and average against the pass (they finished 15th in 2012). They are average in accumulating sacks. They are average at forcing turnovers. The problem with being average is that - by definition - you aren't good. To be a viable fantasy option, a defense has to at least be good somewhere. That's not the Carolina Panthers.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Star Lotuleilei, DT Dwan Edwards, DE Charles Johnson, DE Greg Hardy
Backups: UT Kawann Short, NT Colin Cole, DE Mario Addison, DE Frank Alexander, DE Wes Horton, DE Kony Ealy

Starting DL: An injection of bulk up front in the form of rookie defensive tackle pairing Star Lotuleilei and Kawann Short turned this front into one of the best in the league last season. Short was an effective pass rusher in his rookie year and could be a sneaky effective three-technique penetrator and a startable DT in leagues that require them. Although 32-year-old Dwan Edwards is listed as the starter, Short’s role is certain to be expanded in 2014. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who produced like a DE1 last season, returns under the franchise tag. Paired with Charles Johnson, who wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines on a consistent basis in 2013, both players have elite DE1 ceilings with high-end DE2 floors.

Backup DL: General manager Dave Gettleman played the waiting game to good effect in the offseason along the defensive line, resigning valuable rotational 1-technique, space plugger Colin Cole after a successful career renaissance year in 2013. DE Mario Addison played sparingly in his rookie season, but featured in 13 games and registered three sacks. Talented but frustrating pass rusher Frank Alexander failed to take the next step last season. He was fined over $12,000 for throwing a punch in Week 1 and never quite recovered. Promising former Trojan Wes Horton is a favourite of the coaching staff and could step into the breach should one of the star duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson fall to injury. Second-round pick Kony Ealy will be used as a situational pass rusher initially, and he will be asked to slide into the three-technique in much the same way the Giants used to deploy Justin Tuck. It is unlikely he will displace either Johnson or Hardy, however.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis, WLB Chase Blackburn
Backups: LB A.J. Klein, LB DJ Smith, LB Ben Jacobs

Starting LBs: The dynamic pairing of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis wreaked havoc on opposing offenses last season behind a revamped defensive line. Kuechly is as consistent as they come at linebacker and represents one of the sure-fire options for LB1 production. Davis produced arguably his finest season last year and will be utilised often as a pass-rusher in Sean McDermott’s aggressive defense. Excellent in coverage to boot, Davis should easily reach the range of a solid LB2, if not better. WLB Chase Blackburn played fewer than 300 snaps last season and is liable to be replaced by second-year player A.J. Klein.

Backup LBs: Former Iowa State Cyclone A.J. Klein is the best of the bunch among the Panthers’ backups at linebacker and could find a way into the starting line-up after a solid rookie year in which he excelled on special teams and on the field in spot duty. Neither D.J. Smith nor Ben Jacobs have fantasy relevance.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Antoine Cason, CB Melvin White, SS Roman Harper, FS Thomas DeCoud
Backups: SS Robert Lester, FS Colin Jones, CB Charles Godfrey, SS Tre Boston, CB Bene Benwikere, CB Josh Thomas

Starting DBs: The Panthers’ self-proclaimed ‘No Name Secondary’ performed above expectations in 2013, but they have lost aggressive strong safety Mike Mitchell and feisty cornerback Captain Munnerlyn from that unit. By way of a makeover, general manager Dave Gettleman swooped for low-cost options Antoine Cason, Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Meanwhile, second-year player Melvin White is poised to get the first look at right cornerback. Cason, a forgotten man last year in Arizona, has registered solid tackle totals throughout his career and could be a decent CB2 option depending on matchup. White will be the more targeted of the pairing, however, and totalled 48 tackles on a little over 700 snaps in his rookie year. Harper should be the designated pass rusher of the secondary, taking up the role left by Mitchell. If the Panthers can avoid comebacks and remain aggressive with their blitz packages, Harper should be able to be a marauding ‘joker’ presence in obvious passing situations and be a decent upside option for fantasy owners. With Charles Godfrey moved to CB permanently after his torn Achilles, Thomas DeCoud will be uncontested as the starter at free safety and could have DB3 value.

Backup DBs: SS Robert Lester is the name to watch among the backups, purely because of the opportunity afforded to him in his rookie season. The coaching staff clearly like what they see in the former Alabama safety; if Roman Harper fails to produce, don’t be surprised to see Lester rotated in. Rookie pairing Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston will start on special teams, although the former could feature in nickel and dime packages because of his ability to make plays on the ball and his experience playing nickel in college. Charles Godfrey is likely to act as the bridge in this scenario in what could be his last year in Charlotte.

Last modified: 2014-05-15 14:57:38