Carolina Panthers 2012 Fantasy Outlook
The Carolina Panthers surprised some people in 2011 by going 6-10, despite starting a rookie quarterback after a lockout-shortened offseason with a new head coach and seeing their defense be depleted by injuries to key players.
Of course that rookie signal caller, Cam Newton, made a quick transition to the NFL and set a rookie record with 4,051 passing yards along with 21 touchdown and 17 interceptions. Not too surprisingly, Newton was also a force on the ground with 706 yards and quarterback-record 14 touchdowns.
But Carolina is not without other players fantasy football owners need to be aware of in 2012, most notably running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and wide receiver Steve Smith. With that, lets look at what fantasy owners can expect from the Panthers this season.
QB Cam Newton
Newton’s rookie got off to a flying start with at least 375 passing yards, including over 400 yards in each of his first two games, in three of the first four games of the season. But he was inconsistent, as can be expected from a rookie quarterback, and he did not throw for more than 171 yards in any of the final three games of the season at a critical time for fantasy owners. Those that draft Newton should not expect a repeat of last season’s rushing numbers, but some expected improvement as a passer will cancel that out some and still makes him a top-10 fantasy quarterback for 2012 and perhaps the top signal caller in keeper leagues.
QB Derek Anderson
Anderson’s breakout 2007 campaign with the Cleveland Browns feels like decades ago now, and he did not throw a pass as Newton’s backup last season. If Newton were to miss multiple games with an injury, there could be some fringe value here but otherwise fantasy owners can safely forget about him. Same goes for Jimmy Clausen, who looks likely to be third-string again in 2012.
RB Jonathan Stewart
Stewart only started three games in 2011, but was the Panthers’ most productive all-around back with 761 rushing yards (5.4 yards per game) and four touchdowns along with 47 receptions for 413 yards and one touchdown. Trade rumors have surrounded him this offseason as he enters the final year of his contract, but Carolina general manager Marty Hurney has recently continued his confirmation the team will not be trading him. Being part of a time-share with DeAngelo Williams limits his fantasy upside barring injury, but Stewart should continue to make the most of his opportunities and is worth considering as a low-end RB2 or high end RB3 in standard leagues with slightly greater value in PPR formats.
RB DeAngelo Williams
Williams actually played fewer snaps than Stewart in 2011 (42.7 percent compared to 55.2 percent), but he was still quite productive with 836 rushing yards and seven touchdowns with 16 catches for 135 yards. The financial investment the Panthers made in him last offseason with five-year, $43 million deal guarantees Williams will continue to have a significant role in the Carolina backfield, and he is likely to be the annointed starter no matter how the touches are divided. Being down the pecking order for goal line carries and in the passing game diminishes his fantasy potential, but Williams is a solid choice as a RB3 and potential flex option in standard scoring leagues.
FB Mike Tolbert
Tolbert was signed a free agent from the San Diego Chargers this offseason, and reportedly took less money to return closer to his hometown. He will also have to accept a smaller role offensively than he enjoyed with the Chargers, where he had 19 rushing touchdowns over the past two season and 54 receptions in 2011 as a primary part of the passing game. Tolbert may be in the mix for goal line work immediately, but it will take an injury to Stewart or Williams (or perhaps both) for him to have significant fantasy value this year.
WR Steve Smith
Rumors of Smith’s demise seem to be greatly exaggerated, as he had 79 receptions for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns last season and had his best season since 2008. His age (33) may create some risk for fantasy owners, but his drop in numbers prior to last season appears to be mostly due to incompetent quarterback play in Carolina and not any major deterioration in skills. Smith will still be the top target in the Panthers’ passing game, and that is enough to make him a solid choice as a low-end WR1 or high-end WR2 in all league formats despite a fairly low amount of chances in the red zone.
WR Brandon LaFell
LaFell is entering his third NFL season, and the Panthers are counting on him to emerge as the team’s No. 2 receiver opposite Smith. His big-play ability (17.0 yards per catch last season) should not be overlooked, and if Newton progresses as a passer this season more opportunities could be coming. LaFell is a breakout candidate for 2012 if his consistency improves, and he should be regarded as a WR3/WR4 with some upside.
WR David Gettis
Gettis missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL in his left knee, but is in the mix to at least be Carolina’s No.3 wide receiver this season. He has started training camp on the active/PUP list with a hamstring injury, but that injury has been said to be unrelated to his knee injury and not a long-term concern. Gettis’ ultimate role in the Panthers’ offense is tied to his health as much as anything, and as such he is not worth drafting in most fantasy leagues without locking down a starting job.
WR Louis Murphy
Murphy was acquired via trade from the Oakland Raiders earlier this month, and at minimum has a better chance of earning a roster spot in Carolina. A recent hamstring injury added to a list of hamstring issues during his first three seasons reminds everyone of Murphy’s durability issues, and he seems to have a long way to go to earn a significant enough role in the Panthers’ passing game to land on the radar of fantasy owners.
WR Joe Adams
Adams was drafted in the fourth round of April’s draft out of the University of Arkansas, and may fit in immediately as a slot receiver and return man as a rookie. Being buried on the depth chart out of the gate hurts his fantasy potential for 2012, but those who are in keeper leagues should stay aware of Adams.
TE Greg Olsen
Olsen had a solid first season with the Panthers in 2011, with 45 receptions for 540 yards and five touchdowns while setting a career high in yards per catch (12.0). Splitting time with Jeremy Shockey led to inconsistency, and he had just five catches over the final games of the season (zero in Week 16 and Week 17 combined), but Olsen is now Carolina’s clear-cut No. 1 tight end as Shockey will not be returning. A couple of injuries (back, concussion) limited Olsen late in the season, but a return to full health and the potential of an increased role makes him a worthy choice as a low-end TE1/high-end TE2 with upside for fantasy owners that choose to wait to fill the tight end spot on draft day.
TE Gary Barnidge
Barnidge suffered a broken ankle during training camp last season and was placed on injured reserve, and is now in line to become Olsen’s backup this season. The Panthers apparently like his potential as a receiving threat, but with just 12 catches in four NFL seasons Barnidge still has a long way to go before becoming fantasy relevant.
K Olindo Mare/Justin Medlock
The Panthers’ offense was effective in the red zone last season (57.9 percent touchdown efficiency), limited Mare to 28 field goal attempts. His struggles with accuracy (22-for-28-78.6 percent) further limited his production, and the team added some competition for him by signing Justin Medlock this season. So Mare cannot afford to have a poor performance during the preseason, or the Panthers may cut him and go with the more affordable Medlock as their placekicker. But there is some very good sleeper potential here for whoever wins the job, since the Carolina offense is expected to improve and there should be ample opportunities to produce.
Panthers Defense/IDP Options
The Carolina defense was simply awful all-around in 2011, finishing 24th in the league or worse in passing yards allowed (24th), rushing yards allowed (25th), total yards allowed (28th) and points allowed (27th). Their fantasy numbers were not great either, with 31 sacks (nine from defensive end Charles Johnson) and just 14 interceptions. The return to health of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis should help things a lot, as well as rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly being added to mix, but there are still some questions at cornerback opposite Chris Gamble. This unit should not be regarded as a high-end fantasy option heading into the season, but there is some sleeper potential here and they could be startable in favorable matchups if key players stay healthy. Owners in IDP leagues have a plethora of options here with Beason, Davis and Kuechly as well as Johnson, linebacker James Anderson (145 total tackles in 2011) and safety Charles Godfrey (84 total tackles last season) all worthy of consideration.
Brad has contributed to many sports-related websites for the last eight years, covering predominantly fantasy sports (football and baseball), the NFL and MLB. Some of the websites where his work has been or is currently featured include KFFL.com, Rotowire.com, Bruno Boys Fantasy Football and Tree.com. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.