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2014 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

Quarterbacks

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

Starting QB: Though Cam Newton didn't fulfill the lofty expectations of many fantasy owners during 2013, he still finished as the sixth-best fantasy quarterback in the NFL due to his combination of passing (292/473 for 3,379 yards passing, 24 TDs and 13 interceptions thrown) and rushing (111/585/6) abilities. There was a drop-off in his frequency rushing the football, going from 126 and 127 rushes during his first two seasons to 111 last year, and also a drop in his average yards-per-carry (to 5.3 yards per rush), but he still remains one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. Nobody complains about 5.3 yards per rush at this level, friends. Newton has finished as a top-five fantasy quarterback twice during his three-year career (in 2011 and 2012), with a sixth-place finish during 2013 as noted above.

Backup QB: Derek Anderson joined the Panthers three 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 during 2012, with 4/4 for 58 yards, with zero TDs, zero interceptions and zero rushes, and he had zero passes and zero rushes during the 2013 regular season. As long as Newton stays healthy, Anderson will be a fantasy non-entity. Joe Webb joined Carolina after being lightly utilized as a wide receiver in Minnesota last year - he's a scrambling type of quarterback who is still learning his craft at the NFL level.

Running Backs

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

Starting RB: DeAngelo Williams led the Panthers' running backs in production last year by default - Jonathan Stewart missed 10 games last season due to his ongoing ankle woes and then a torn MCL in his knee (week 14), after only playing in nine contests during 2012. Williams managed over 1,100 yards combined with 201/843/3 rushing and 36 targets for 26/333/1 receiving during 2013. As usual, Cam Newton accounted for a hefty portion of the team's rushing yards and TDs, with 111/585/6 rushing to his credit - Williams simply doesn't get many shots at six-point plays as Newton is so effective around the goal line (and fullback Mike Tolbert also scored five TDs last year). Williams has publicly stated his concerns over facing 7-8 men in the box this year due to the lack of top receivers on the squad, saying 'I mean, I don't know where we go from there.' when asked about the wide receiver stable. The Panthers' line also suffered a huge loss when LT Jordan Gross retired, but the team drafted only one offensive guard this year and hasn't made much in the way of free agency moves to address the hole on the offensive line, either. Williams will likely see a lot of opportunities to carry the football this year, but whether there will be holes to run to is another matter entirely. Jonathan Stewart spent most of 2013 sidelined due to ankle and knee woes, appearing in just six contests to post 48/180/0 rushing and 7/44/0 receiving for the regular season. This, after a frustrating 2012 campaign in which he played in nine games producing 93/336/1 rushing and 17/157/1 receiving. Stewart tore his MCL during week 14 last season and missed the fantasy playoffs - he is expected to be fully recovered in time for training camp and reports on May 5 indicated that Stewart is practicing yoga and has initiated a stretching routine to try and stay healthier during the 2014 season. However, training camp started with Stewart again suffering an injury - now he has a pulled hamstring, and is expected to miss two-to-four weeks. He may also miss at least the first preseason game - as we saw last year with Steven Jackson in Atlanta, soft tissue injuries can be nagging issues and Stewart isn't known as a 'fast healer'.

Backup RBs: Kenjon Barner is a second-year player out of Oregon selected at #182 in the 2013 NFL draft - he had six rushes for seven yards and two receptions for seven yards over seven games appeared in during 2013. Tyler Gaffney was selected at #204 during the 2014 draft (from Stanford) - unfortunately he tore up a knee early in training camp and is now out for the season. 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, and has been an important player for the Panthers as well. In his second season with the team last year Tolbert handled 101 carries for 361 yards and five touchdowns, while snagging 27/184/2 receiving. He is the team's backup running back as well as a powerful goal-line option for the Panthers. Given Jonathan Stewart's fragility, Tolbert is likely to see a significant number of touches again during 2014.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Kelvin Benjamin
Backups: Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt, Kealoha Pilares

Starting WRs: Ancient Jerricho Cotchery (he'll be 32 when regular season starts) is currently on top of the Panthers' depth chart at wide receiver. Cotchery did grab a career-high 10 TDs for Pittsburgh last season (76 targets for 46/602/10) but he had a grand total of two receiving TDs during his prior two seasons with the Steelers. Entering his 11th NFL season, Cotchery has amassed more than 1,000 yards receiving exactly once (way back in 2007 when he handled 127 targets for 82/1,130/2 receiving), and his career high in receptions is 82, achieved twice (during 2006 and 2007). As you can see, Cotchery's best seasons are far behind him, for the most part. Jason Avant (31 years old as of April 20, 2014) is listed as the Panthers' #2 wide receiver right now, but he's looking over his shoulder at rookie Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers' first round selection who may well work his way into the starting lineup come regular season. Avant managed around 50 receptions per season at his peak with his previous NFL team, the Eagles, during 2010-2012 - but he finished 2013 with 76 targets for 38/447/2 receiving, a 50% reception percentage. He is playing for the Panthers on a one-year, $1.05 million deal - he's essentially getting backup money so there would be no surprise to see Benjamin pass Avant on the depth chart. Kelvin Benjamin was selected at 1.28 during the 2014 NFL draft. There is a wide range of opinions about Benjamin's readiness to be a pro receiver - some feel his size (6-5, 240 lbs), reach and leaping abilities will make him a favorite target of Cam Newton, while others fret about Benjamin's lack of polished route running and his tendency to juggle or drop catchable balls. He has the potential to be productive at the pro level, but there is a lot of work to be done on Benjamin's part - meanwhile, the Panthers' wide receiving corps needs help NOW. It remains to be seen how much chemistry Benjamin can create with Newton - we'll see how they look working together during preseason. There is definitely plenty of opportunity for Benjamin to shine in Carolina, but his ability to capitalize on the abundant opportunities there is open to question.

Backup WRs: Tiquan Underwood, the current #4 wideout in Carolina, hit his career high-water mark during 2012 while with Tampa Bay (14 games played yielding 55 targets for 28/425/2 receiving), managing 46 targets for 24/440/0 over 12 games with Tampa last year. He is not likely to be a consistently productive fantasy wide receiver buried on the depth chart in Carolina. The Panthers nabbed King from the Broncos when they attempted to stash him on the practice squad after they promoted him to keep the Packers from stealing him. McNutt is a size/speed prospect who was also signed during the 2013 season. Pilares has hung around the team for a while, but is a very poor man's Wes Welker at best.

Tight Ends

Starters: Greg Olsen
Backups: Ed Dickson

Greg Olsen enjoyed a career-high 111 targets for 73/816/6 receiving last year, and finished the season as the eighth-best fantasy wide receiver in the NFL. Since Cam Newton arrived in Carolina, Olsen has been his primary option at tight end (Olsen also joined the Panthers in 2011), and Olsen has seen over 100 targets for two straight seasons (he had 104 targets for 69/843/5 receiving during 2012) and has been a top-ten tight end both of those years. In fact, Olsen caught more passes than any other Panther during 2013 and scored the most receiving touchdowns as well. He caught all but one of the passes hauled in by a Panthers' tight end last season. Ed Dickson (43 targets for 25/273/1 receiving last season) joined the Panthers from Baltimore to provide an experienced #2 tight end. Dickson didn't wow in Baltimore last year after Dennis Pitta went down to injury, but he did provide a steady-if-unexciting presence on the field for Joe Flacco. Dickson's best season in the pros, with Baltimore during 2011, saw him convert 54/528/5 receiving out of 97 targets. Dickson has gotten it done at this level and is likely to see plenty of opportunities as the Panthers' #2 tight end (given the shallow pool of talent at wide receiver here in Carolina entering the 2014 season). It shouldn't be hard for him to exceed last year's numbers this season, but he is clearly the second-fiddle to Greg Olsen on this squad.

Place Kicker

Graham Gano: Last year, kicker Graham Gano had the best season of his five years in the NFL – hitting 24 of 27 (88.9%) field goals, including 6 of 6 from 50+ yards, plus 42 extra points. The Panthers subsequently re-signed him to a 4-year deal during the offseason. At holder/punter Brad Nortman enters his third year. J.J. Jansen remains the long snapper. Punter Jordan Gay was added one again as a camp leg. The Panthers have ranked in the bottom half of the league in attempted kicker scoring for five straight years (23rd, 31st, 18th, 30th & 21st).

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Ted Ginn, Jordan Todman, Brenton Bersin, Philly Brown, Fozzy Whittaker

After a season of middling results in the return game, the Panthers sought a familiar face and signed Ted Ginn back to the team after he spent the 2014 season in Arizona. Ginn had a down year in the return game and could face competition from new arrival Jordan Todman. Todman has been one of the better kick returners the last two seasons in Jacksonville. If Todman can make the roster at running back he may be able to wrest kickoff returns from the 30-year old Ginn.

Punt Returners: Ted Ginn, Brenton Bersin, Philly Brown

With Ted Ginn back in the fold, the competition for punt returner should largely be for the backup position. Though Brenton Bersin saw more returns late last season, Philly Brown was the better returner overall. With the Panthers having added more competition at receiver, Brown may see more time with special teams.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Byron Bell, LG Amini Silatolu, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner [R], RT Edmund Kugbila
Key Backups: T Nate Chandler, C Brian Folkerts, G/T Garry Williams, T Travis Bond

The Panthers’ start the season as a mid tier unit. Their preseason ranking is negatively impacted by the retirement of three-time Pro Bowler Jordan Gross. Gross, who was a starting selection for last year’s Hawaiian exhibition, was a steadying force on this line and it’s not exactly clear how the team will replace him. The coaching staff has a vision for how it should shake out, but currently there are several jobs up for grabs at this line. Restricted free agent Byron Bell, a capable starter at right tackle, is widely predicted to take the left tackle job. Bell is a massive human being at 6’5” 340 but there are some concerns if he has the functional quickness to make the switch. Other competition for the job includes Nate Chandler (a former defensive lineman) and spot starter Garry Williams. On the right side, the Panthers have a similar competition to replace Bell, and the leading candidate appears to be second year man Edmund Kugbila. Kugbila was drafted to be a guard but has college experience at tackle from his sophomore season at Valdosta State. Kugbila missed all of last season with a left knee injury but should be ready for week one. Another player coming back from a missing year is third year player Amini Silatolu, slated to start at left guard. Rookie third round selection Trai Turner from LSU looks to be a favorite to win a starting job at the right job position. Turner had outstanding workouts and his transition to the pros should be easier than other, less blessed athletes. It’s not all uncertainty, however, as Ryan Kalil returns as a starting center coming off an All-Pro campaign in 2013. Kalil is the bedrock of this line and his leadership prevents this unit from being ranked lower than mid table. Overall this line has a lot of questions right now but should the starting jobs settle and the line gel together, this unit certainly has the talent to rise up in the rankings.

Team Defense

Concerns over the Panthers secondary were largely muted in 2013 due to the incredible play of their front seven. A defensive line with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy coming off the edge and rookie Star Lotuleilei manning the middle caused all kinds of problems for opposing quarterbacks. Luke Kuechly continues to be one of the bright young stars at MLB while Thomas Davis proved to be a worthy (if underrated) complement. Once again the secondary looks to be a major area of concern, with the team losing it's two best players from that unit. They brought in several cheap alternatives with the hope that once again their front seven can make them look better than they are. The only real concern with this unit is that the secondary is so bad that the pass rush doesn't have time to get home.

Defensive Line

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

Starting DL: After spelling veteran Dwan Edwards for his first two seasons, it seems year three will be Kawann Short’s time to get the starting nod at 3-technique. Short has been an incredibly productive pass rusher in 500-600 snap doses. His ability to beat guards with a variety of moves has seen him rack up tackles and sacks. Third-year pro Star Lotulelei has been a model of consistency at nose tackle since being drafted. He and Short form a formidable duo on the interior. On the edge, veteran Charles Johnson will continue in his role as the Panthers’ top run defender and pass rushing threat, but a platoon opposite him will be asked to contribute more than in 2014. The loss of Greg Hardy hit this defense hard from a pass rush perspective; the returning Frank Alexander, Wes Horton and Kony Ealy will rotate.

Backup DL: Interior linemen Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards were re-signed by the team this offseason, but their advancing years and the one-year deals they were given indicate they are likely in their final season in Charlotte. Frank Alexander returns after a suspension cost him the majority of the 2014 season; the word is that he has learned from his mistakes. Mario Addison showed some flashes in spot duty last year and is more of a pass rusher than a run defender. Perhaps the most promising player of the group is second-year pro Kony Ealy. A second-round selection last year, Ealy had to endure a steep learning curve in his rookie year, but showed greater understanding and comfort in his role as the season went on. A breakout season will be expected from him, especially with the void at the defensive end position opposite Charles Johnson.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Luke Kuechly, WLB Shaq Thompson, SLB Thomas Davis
Backups: LB A.J. Klein, LB Adarius Glanton, LB Jason Trusnik, LB Ben Jacobs, LB Kevin Reddick, LB David Mayo

Starting LBs: The Panthers recently picked up the fifth-year option on star linebacker Luke Kuechly’s contract, meaning he will remain in Carolina for the next seasons – and likely beyond that. Kuechly is the consummate pro and a team captain, a player the Panthers won’t let get away. His consistency play to play has made him one of the top linebackers in the league. Thomas Davis has not lost any of his sideline to sideline mobility even after three ACL tears. He and Kuechly form a formidable duo and make Carolina’s pass coverage very effective indeed in the underneath zones. The addition of athletic jack-of-all-trades Shaq Thompson gives the Panthers a further boost in the pass coverage department, but it is the speed and playmaking ability of Thompson that excites the front office. Projected by some to be a safety pre-draft, general manager Dave Gettleman confirmed Thompson would only be a linebacker. Gettleman expects his first round pick to contribute immediately, so it is not unreasonable to expect Thompson to slot in at weakside linebacker, possibly giving way to Davis in subpackages.

Backup LBs: A.J. Klein is slated to be the primary backup option and could see snaps early in the season if Shaq Thompson has trouble adjusting to the speed of the pro game. Not the most athletic, Klein won’t contribute in subpackages, but has age (23) on his side for a long-term role as a key backup. Jason Trusnik was signed as part of general manager Dave Gettleman’s plan to improve the Panthers’ special teams play. A veteran like Trusnik, who has made his name on teams, will be a great asset. He will also be first in line as backup to Luke Kuechly. The team likes what they see out of Adarius Glanton, an undrafted free agent from last year’s class. He is a good fit at weakside linebacker and projects as Thomas Davis’ backup. Fifth round selection David Mayo was described as a 'hitter' by Gettleman. Mayo will contribute mostly on special teams but could earn a backup role in time.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Josh Norman, CB Charles Tillman, SS Roman Harper, FS Tre Boston
Backups: CB Bene Benwikere, CB Melvin White, CB Carrington Byndom, CB Teddy Williams, S Kurt Coleman, S Colin Jones

Starting DBs: Josh Norman was a pleasant surprise for the Panthers last season, stepping in from Week 8 onwards and performing very solidly. Norman is still a bit of a freewheeler in the secondary, but his length gives him a chance against even the tallest wideouts. The left cornerback job is his to lose. Charles Tillman, who had a good relationship with head coach Ron Rivera when he was in Chicago, joined the team on a short-term deal. Despite missing the majority of the past two seasons with injury, the hope is that Tillman will be able to replicate some of his penchant for turnovers and be a solid veteran presence in the back end. The strong safety position belongs to veteran Roman Harper, but new signing Kurt Coleman could push the ageing Harper. Tre Boston, a rookie revelation last year, made the free safety position his own after Carolina made the change in Week 9. He will be expected to keep up the momentum heading into 2015, but the safety position is one the Panthers could choose to bolster in the draft.

Backup DBs: Bene Benwikere, who so ably performed for the team at outside cornerback in 2014, will move to his more familiar and preferred nickel position in 2015 after the signing of Charles Tillman. Benwikere, a feisty player entering his second season, is a favourite of the coaching staff. Melvin White and Carrington Byndom provide decent depth, and new arrival Teddy Williams was signed with special teams in mind. Kurt Coleman, another new arrival, will compete with incumbent starter at strong safety, Roman Harper. Colin Jones is a chess piece the team used in nickel situations last year, but he likely won’t see the field much on defense after the addition of Shaq Thompson.

Last modified: 2015-05-06 09:17:20