Training camp and preseason is a dangerous time for 2015 player outlooks, when we just hope our favorite targets and team cornerstones make it through the month of August without any new injuries or surgeries. The biggest landmine of the preseason yet exploded when Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL on a non-contact injury in a joint practice with the Dolphins. What do we find when we sift through the rubble?
Cam Newton - There’s no way to spin this as positive for Newton. Benjamin was a player he could lean on in key game situations, including the red zone. Perhaps if the team falls way behind even more often than they did in 2014, he could have more garbage time stats (Benjamin actually scored five of his nine touchdowns when the Panthers were down big), but the passing game is going to have more bumps in the road with Benjamin out, fewer sustained drives and defenses will just have an easier time defending them. Newton should be at or near the bottom of your QB1 tier.
Jonathan Stewart - Stewart becomes the only running back or wide receiver to present a plus matchup for the Panthers. It’s safe to assume the Panthers will lean on him even more, but is that a good thing? Theoretically this should lead to more volume, but Stewart has never proven that he can hold up under a feature back workload for an entire season, and being the lead back in a one-dimensional offense is a tough road to hoe. Stewart’s value is basically unchanged, as extra volume is cancelled out by the quality of the offense dropping.
Greg Olsen - Olsen did a lot of heavy lifting in the pass offense last year, and he could do even more this year. Caught in the “no man’s land” at tight end between the clear top three (Gronkowski, Graham, and Kelce) and the TE1 pack, Olsen now looks closer to Kelce than he does to whomever you have at TE5. He was actually a high ceiling weekly PPR play, who was a very strong play 75% of the time. He’ll likely lead the team in targets. He's definitely worth a look in the sixth round of PPR leagues.
Devin Funchess - It’s somewhat convenient that the Panthers drafted a wide receiver with a lot of the same strengths as Benjamin in the second round this year. Funchess has a massive catch radius, very fluid athleticism for a long-limbed receiver, and surprising explosiveness. Like Benjamin, he’s coming very raw at the position, with only one year as a wide receiver in college under his belt. He struggled at times on balls he had to compete for, and the #1 corners of the league that he faces will make him compete. Benjamin’s performance was more up and down than widely reported last year, and a lot of his production came when the team was trying to dig out big holes in the second half of poor performances. Funchess could reproduce that fantasy value plan, but it’s difficult to depend on that, and he just tweaked his hamstring in practice today. Consider him an upside bench wide receiver to look for around 9th-10th round if you want to bet on the connection between him and Newton.
Corey Brown, Ted Ginn Jr, Jerricho Cotchery, Free Agent to be named later - This is what the team has left to work with at wide receiver. We might have been talking about Stephen Hill as a potential savior if he hadn’t gone down with an injury earlier this offseason. Brown made some big plays for the team last year and could be the designated deep threat, although they also have shown an unhealthy fascination with Ginn, bringing him back again this year. Cotchery had a prolific touchdown scoring season with the Steelers a few years ago, but this is not the Steelers offense and Cam Newton is not Ben Roethlisberger. At the very best, we’re hoping for waiver wire watch list material from whoever emerges as the #2 receiver in Carolina.
The Carolina Offense/Team - Benjamin was the mismatch that put a stress on secondaries. Funchess was supposed to leverage off of that against lesser corners, but that plan is shot. Olsen can handle the middle of the field with or without Benjamin’s help, but if this team is going to sustain drives, someone else is going to need to emerge to some extent. Benjamin’s quality of play last year is overstated by his stats, but he still provided a lot of tactical value with the height and catch radius advantage - which played right into Newton’s occasionally scattershot accuracy. Most reports had Benjamin improving this year in training camp, so the reality is that the Panthers offense becomes one of the worst in the league among those with a functional, proven quarterback. The deflationary effect on the whole offense could be frustrating if the defense is good enough to keep games on a classic Riverboat Ron 13-9 type game script most weeks (monitor Charles Johnson’s calf injury). Swapping out the AFC South for the AFC North and NFC East for NFC North from last year’s schedule and being in one of the two weakest divisions in the NFL actually helps them keep more games as boring wrestling matches, although we saw this team hit the skids and look like one of the worst 2-3 teams in the NFL for a good stretch of 2014. The garbage time could ensue, although don’t look for a dumpsterfire here. The running game, defense, and general combativeness of the team should keep them competitive as long as Newton is playing well. And if Newton isn’t playing well, you don’t want any part of this offense on your fantasy team. If in doubt in your draft, err on the side of that statement.