Four years into his career, it is fair to say that Newton’s development as a passer has not matched his development in the running game. Saddled with one of the worst wide receiver depth charts in the league last season and missing two games to open the season due to an ankle injury, Newton threw for a career-low 3,127 yards in 2014 with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. However, his fantasy stock should be on the rise heading into 2015. The team’s offensive line performed far better over the second half of last season than at the beginning of the year. Carolina addressed the wide receiver position with the selection of Devin Funchess in the 2nd round of this year’s NFL Draft, as well as by re-signing speed merchant Ted Ginn Jr. And a closer look reveals that Newton’s fantasy production was far better once the condition of his ankle improved. After averaging just 18.1 points per game during his first four games when he ran the ball an average of just 3.5 times, his production increased to 22.8 PPG over his final ten, averaging 8.9 carries for 49.7 yards and 0.5 touchdowns. Newton rates as a mid-tier QB1 this season who could emerge as a Top 5 option.
There are certain players that you can make an easy case for as solid fantasy options and that you could also make the case that you shouldn’t have anything to do with them. Meet Jonathan Stewart. The good: Over the Panthers last seven games (including playoffs), he tallied 736 total yards and three touchdowns. He averaged 20.2 touches per game over the Panthers final six games. DeAngelo Williams left town and Stewart’s backups are iffy and/or unproven. The bad: Stewart has missed 20 games over the past three years. If you draft him, you have to get his backup but we don’t know for certain who that will be. He topped 1,000 rushing yards once in seven seasons. He has averaged 10 points per game once. He has caught more than 25 passes in a season once. Cam Newton steals short yardage touchdowns. We’ve given you the good and the bad. With his ADP hovering around 45th overall as the 21st running back taken, Stewart doesn’t come cheaply. We like him, don’t love him, and only support adding him if he is somewhat discounted in your particular draft.
With just the aging Mike Tolbert behind Jonathan Stewart at running back due to the offseason release of DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers addressed their need in the backfield by selecting Cameron Artis-Payne in the 5th round of this year’s NFL Draft. The 5’10”, 210 pound Auburn product has decent size and speed and is viewed by the Panthers coaching staff as a viable option to step into the lineup as Stewart’s replacement in the event of an injury. While Artis-Payne lacks the skills to be considered an upper tier dynasty prospect, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to see him having fantasy value in his rookie season. With 20 missed games over the past three seasons, the 28-year old Stewart has hardly been a bastion of good health, and Artis-Payne’s competition consists of undrafted free agents, veteran retreads and the aging Tolbert. That makes him worthy of a late round draft choice in redraft leagues and a mid to lower tier prospect in dynasty formats since we expect the Panthers would use an early round pick to replenish the position in the event of a major injury to Stewart.
Approaching his 30th birthday, Tolbert was a bit player in the Panthers offense in 2014 despite injuries that kept Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams out of the lineup for various lengths of time. Limited to eight games due to a knee injury, Tolbert carried the ball just 37 times for 78 yards and failed to find the end zone, although he did score in the playoffs. As a receiver, he added 12 receptions for 93 yards. Even though Williams was released in the offseason, we harbor no expectations that Tolbert will earn a significant role behind Stewart in 2015. Look for rookie Cameron Artis-Payne to emerge as Stewart’s main backup with Tolbert getting the odd short yardage run.
Taken in the 1st round of last year’s NFL Draft to replace Panthers legend Steve Smith, Kelvin Benjamin didn’t disappoint, topping 1,000 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns while catching 73 passes. At 6’5” and 234 pounds, and possessing solid but not outstanding speed, Benjamin proved to be a weapon in the red zone and has the skill set to emerge as one of the league’s Top 10 wide receivers. While Benjamin’s ability to replicate his touchdown count from a year ago isn’t in too much doubt, one area of concern is his completion to target rate as he hauled in exactly half of his targets (73 of 145). Let’s call that nit picking since with no proven wide receiver opposite him, Benjamin should be in line for plenty of targets once again in 2015. If Cam Newton improves his accuracy, Benjamin’s upside is as a mid-tier WR1. Failing that, feel safe grabbing him as an upper tier WR2.
With it seeming like an eternity has passed since the Panthers have lined up two solid wide receivers in their starting lineup, the team addressed the position in each of the last two drafts with high picks. After selecting Kelvin Benjamin in the 1st round of last year’s NFL Draft, Carolina selected another huge target in the 2nd round this year in Devin Funchess. At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, Funchess is a massive target who possesses decent speed having run a 4.5-40 at his pro day. However, at just 21 years of age and considered a bit of a raw prospect coming out of Michigan, he isn’t likely to be a consistent contributor early in his pro career. And while it’s easy to project Funchess as a solid red zone option, the Panthers already possess a pair of solid red zone options in the form of Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen. Funchess rates as late round flyer material in redraft formats but we consider him a mid-tier prospect in dynasty formats.
After scoring a whopping 10 touchdowns in 2013, Cotchery found the end zone just once last season even though he caught two more passes. Back in Carolina in 2015, Cotchery’s spot in the starting lineup is going to be handed over to 2nd round pick Devin Funchess at some point this season, and we expect that to happen sooner rather than later. With Cotchery battling the likes of Jarrett Boykin, Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Stephen Hill to emerge as the Panthers 3rd wide receiver, we aren’t too excited about his fantasy prospects especially considering Carolina’s balanced run-pass ratio.
An undrafted free agent in 2012, Boykin hauled in 49 of his 82 targets for 681 yards and three touchdowns during the 2013 season before being relegated to a bit part in the Packers offense last season. Signed by Carolina in the offseason, he will compete for a backup spot on the Panthers. Since the Packers know a thing or two about developing wide receivers and Carolina used a 1st and a 2nd round pick on the wide receiver position over the last two drafts, we don’t foresee Boykin establishing himself as a fantasy option in 2015.
A bust as the Jets 2nd round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, Hill spent the 2014 season buried on the Panthers practice squad and returns this season to compete for a spot on the team’s depth chart at wide receiver. At 6’4″ and 215 pounds with blazing speed, Hill seems to fit the mold of the type of wide receivers that the Panthers prefer, so he has a chance to resurrect his career in Carolina. With a cast of journeymen and unproven younger players, there is a decent chance he earns a roster spot and some playing time in 2015 but he isn’t roster worthy in your fantasy league until he strings together a few solid weeks.
With a lack of production opposite Kelvin Benjamin at wide receiver and a plethora of injuries at the running back position, Olsen posted the finest season of his eight-year career with career highs in targets with 123, receptions with 84 and yards with 1,008 while scoring six touchdowns. What’s new for 2015? Well, unpolished rookie 2nd round pick Devin Funchess figures to start alongside Benjamin, there is a cast of pretenders at the backup wide receiver positions and DeAngelo Williams left town leaving the injury prone Jonathan Stewart as the team’s only proven running back other than the declining Mike Tolbert. Add it all up and we expect Olsen to once again approach the 1,000 yard receiving mark with between six and eight touchdowns. Feel comfortable grabbing Olsen as either the 3rd or 4th tight end taken in your draft.