By John Doylemason
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
“You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.”- Superman, Man of Steel
Mark my words, Cam Newton will be a beast in 2013. He’s not the sharpest tool in the NFL shed, but he’s assuredly one of the most versatile and athletic. Maybe living near Oakland has rubbed off on me, but I plan on drafting Newton and then to “just win, baby!” The Panther’s offense withstood a barrage of key injuries but remained productive at season’s end. This roster is littered with unheralded talent and if Newton can mentally be the trigger man for this offense, the outlook is very good. A stable of talented backs highlights the new simplified run game and play calling. The pass catching corps will improve statistically as well. If the team can live up to their athletic potential, they have top 5 offensive capabilities.
Added: WR Domenik Hixon, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR James Shaw, P Jordan Gay, LB Chase Blackburn, S Mike Mitchell, CB D.J. Moore, CB Drayton Florence, DT Collin Cole
Drafted: DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, G Edmund Kugbila, LB A.J. Klein, RB Kenjon Barner
Lost: LB James Anderson, CB Chris Gamble, DT Ron Edwards, LB Kenny Onatolu, WR Louis Murphy
Positive: Greg Olsen, TE – Olsen finished an unheralded 6th in TEs in 2012. While big names Witten, Davis, and Rudolph go early in drafts, it’s shocking to me that Olsen currently has an ADP in the 13th round! He has become Cam Newton’s favorite short range weapon the passing game, as shown by his 104 targets, second only to Steve Smith’s 138 in 2012. As a result, he posted the second most yardage and the most TDs. He has the talent to reach 1000 yards and the scheme and return of a healthy offensive line can make that a reality. With the return to a traditional passing attack, look for Olsen to be targeted early and often as Smith, LaFell, and Edwards work as downfield targets. As a staff, we like Olsen much more than his ADP suggests, so you would be smart to scoop him up in the late rounds and reap the benefits all season!
Negative: DeAngelo Williams, RB – Restructuring your contract is never a good sign in fantasy terms. It clearly states the team does not value that player at his given salary and is willing to cut them if they don’t take a paycut. DeAngelo was the team’s lead back in ’12 (finishing with 173 carries for 737 yards) for but that was largely due to Jonathan Stewart dealing with nagging injuries. However, Stewart has been the far more effective back, so expect a healthy Stewart will retain the lead role and push Williams down the depth chart. Additionally, Stewart is a far superior pass catcher, as evidenced by his 47 catches in Newton’s rookie year, so he will lock down most of the passing down work. Considering that Cam Newton is by far the most effective of the three as a goal line back, that leaves DeAngelo to pick up the scraps. To make matters even worse, the Panthers drafted blazing and prolific Kenjon Barner who will be nipping at Williams’ heels all season and may have a chance to carve himself out a nice little role.
1) In his 3rd year, will Cam Newton take the next step and crack the top 3 QBs?
Most fantasy analysts, my colleagues included, rank Cam in the QB5 range. With all due respect to those guys, I’m here to tell you emphatically that Cam Newton will indeed be a top 3 QB in 2013! That’s right, you heard it here first! Here’s why:
It typically takes a rookie QB 3 years to hit his stride and produce what will become career like numbers. Rookie QBs have no film on their game and are largely propped up by play calling to keep the offense safe. Thus, we saw Cam post 4051 passing and 706 rushing in 2011 and many assumed duplicate production in 2012. However, with another year comes increased reads, responsibilities, and additional film for defensive coordinators to track tendencies and weaknesses; and therefore, Cam slumped for the first half of 2012. The second half of 2012 was an entirely different story as he came alive and led tons of fantasy owners to championships averaging an insane 23.75 fantasy points per week between Weeks 9-16. In 2013, Newton will certainly take another step forward with his second full offseason to grasp the playbook and learn the intricacies of the offense and his own game.
Newton faces a very favorable schedule in 2013. The Saints and the Bucs allowed the most fantasy points to QBs in 2012, and outside of the Bucs acquiring Darelle Revis, who we don’t yet know if he’ll be the same player he was with the Jets, they haven’t improved much. In addition to playing each of them twice in 2013, the Panthers get to play against the Bills, Giants and Vikings all of which were in the top 10 of most fantasy points allowed to QBs.
Many fantasy analysts are predicting Newton’s production to tail off because Carolina did not address the WR position in the fall, leaving them with just Steve Smith and a bunch of inconsistent or unproven guys behind him. However, if no change occurred at the position, wouldn’t his totals remain stagnant? Steve Smith is an ageless wonder and has been Newton’s go-to the past two seasons and shows no signs of letting up (more on this in Burning Question #2). With OT Jordon Gross and C Ryan Kalil returning healthy and OG competition increasing with the drafting of 3rd rounder Edmund Kugbila, the Panthers pro-bowl littered O-line looks to bounce back and Cam figures to have more time to stand in the pocket and allow the play to develop so that he can hit Smith deep.
What really takes Cam’s numbers to a whole new level is his proficiency rushing the ball. The past two seasons he has averaged 700+ yards and 11 rushing TDs, numbers never seen before in the NFL. Despite moving to a more traditional offense in 2013, guarantee that Cam will still get plenty of opportunities to run with the football. After finishing 4th in fantasy points each of the last two seasons, Cam will take another step forward in 2013, he’s too talented not to. If you happen to be grabbing your QB somewhat early, you would be lucky to grab him as the 5th QB that his ADP suggests, he will be a top 3 guy in 2013, mark my words!
2) Is this the year Steve Smith finally falls off a cliff?
With OC Mike Shula placing emphasis on a conventional run game, as opposed to Chudzinki’s read option of 2012, the play-action and downfield passing game should increase Smith’s targets. After commanding 129 targets in ’11 and 138 targets in ’12, don’t be surprised if Smith get up into the 150 target range this year. Less QB read-option runs will also translate to opposing defenses having to keep a more loaded box to deal with Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Cam Newton; leaving Smith in more favorable matchups and less rolled coverage.
The lack of a strong WR2 on the Panthers keeps Smith’s the focal point of the passing attack. TE Greg Olsen is the primary threat in the middle of the field, but on the outside Smith has little competition for targets. While LaFell’s role will likely increase in his fourth season, do not expect him to suddenly usurp Smith on the depth chart unless something drastic happens. Journeymen Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. were brought in to compete for that 3rd WR job, but both have been underwhelming in their careers and are realistic threats to take touches away from Smith.
After missing at least one game each year from 2006-2010, Smith’s health concerns seem to be behind him as he played in every game over the last two years. One of the toughest guys in the sport, the diminutive (listed generously as 5″9) Smith still has plenty of speed to burn as shown by averaging well above his career yards per catch average each of his last two seasons. While his numbers will not singlehandedly make your season, he’s a consistent starting option that you can count on to produce for your fantasy team.
3) Can Brandon LaFell finally be a consistent fantasy producer?
Although the offensive line returns healthy and the play calling returns to traditional run and downfield passing designs, LaFell is the third target in the passing game and in my opinion, lacks the talent to take it to the next level. His numbers reflect burst and potential but his tape shows a disappearing act.
While LaFell came in third in receptions, with 44 for 677 yards and 4 TDs, behind Smith and Olsen, he didn’t seem to have a consistent role in the offense in 2012. He’s not a burner, but has enough speed and size to be a impact WR at the NFL level. Especially with the Panthers moving to a more downfield attack, adding 20-30 receptions to his total is not farfetched. If LaFell can capitalize on the single coverage he’ll face with Steve Smith garnering the majority of the secondaries defensive attention, he’s in for a big year. However, he’ll need to be more consistent in his route running and get past the minor injuries that have kept him off the field as a starter. In the final year of his rookie contract, 2013 is a make or break year for LaFell.
Domenik Hixon, Ten Ginn Jr. and Armanti Edwards will compete for the WR3 spot now that Louis Murphy is in New York. Armanti Edwards impressed many in the Carolina camp with his improved route running and blazing quickness, but Dominik Hixon seems most likely to win the WR3 job. LaFell is currently locked in to the WR2 job, but with all the competition at WR, he will need to have a strong preseason and good start to the regular season to keep that job all year.
I want to bet on LaFell but in fantasy there’s so many more attractive options. He’ll earn a starting roll and will have a few weeks in which he tops the free agent pickups lists, but he’s boom or bust and too risky to count on consistently in your roster. In his 14 games last season, he posted sub 50 yards in half of them. Two of those games he put up goose eggs. Definitely a player to watch in the preseason or a waiver pickup if Smith goes down but I don’t see more than a 60 rec, 800 yard, 5 TD season with those numbers being too sporadically dispersed to consistently be counted upon week-in week-out.
Although the Panthers did not make waves in the draft or free agency the roster has talent and a few key players will remain productive in fantasy. Many of the play calling issues that hindered production are being fixed and early reports from camp also show marked improvement from younger players. Returning cogs along the offensive line will surely avoid some of the issues faced last season. Look for Cam to be a top 3-5 QB in fantasy with his run/pass skill set. Steve Smith will be a reliable WR2 on your roster and Greg Olsen will definitely outperform his draft position. The running game remains a question and I would only invest (and not even that much) in Jonathan Stewart.