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Fantasy Opportunity Breakdown: Carolina Panthers

2019 Coaching Staff

The Panthers finished a disappointing 7-9 last season, but don’t let the record fool you. After all, it’s rather difficult to win when your star QB spends half the season physically unable to throw the deep ball. The Carolina brass certainly was not dissuaded as it stayed the course with long-time head coach Ron Rivera. Norv Turner was also kept on as offensive coordinator as he managed to find reasonable success despite the handicapped QB.

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What to Expect

The fascinating thing about the last three Panther offensive coordinators is that they all basically run the same offense. Sure there are some personal tweaks here and there, but Rob Chudzinski, Mike Shula, and Norv Turner all run an Air Coryell offense that features a power running game and deep shots down the field. After all, what else would you run with a cannon-armed QB who runs as well as any running back?

Of course, the caveat of having a premier dual-threat QB is that he’s going to take a beating, which is precisely what sunk the Panthers’ season. After nine weeks, the Panthers were sitting pretty on a 6-2 record. In week 10, though, Newton took a shot to his throwing shoulder, aggravating an injury that had been nagging him since week 7. The result? Seven straight losses as Newton was suddenly unable to push the ball down the field, a rather important aspect of a scheme that relies heavily on vertical routes. Turner will have to do a better job of protecting his QB if he hopes to revive the Panthers offense. The good news is that Newton will be at full health for the start of the new season. With a healthy Newton, a rising star in Christian McCaffrey, and an up-and-coming wide receiver corps, the Panthers should field one of the more explosive offenses in 2019.

The Data

The exact balance of passing plays vs. running plays is a bit tough to predict for the Panthers offense. Norv Turner has frequently adjusted the balance to match his team’s strengths, so there’s no clear cut answer there. Even assuming he calls plays similarly to his predecessors in Carolina doesn’t give a definitive answer at first glance as the ratios bounce all over the place. When you start to dig though, there is one thing that sticks out; the Panthers throw the ball a lot more when Newton isn’t healthy. This past season, the Panthers ran pass plays almost 59% of the time. In 2016, when Newton was playing with a partially torn rotator cuff, the Panthers passed 57% of the time. The Carolina pass percentages in 2015 and 2017 with a healthy Newton? 50% and 52%, respectively. Injuries are tough to predict, which makes this part of the projections particularly tricky. Complicating the issue is that star running back Christian McCaffrey is just a little smaller than you’d like a feature back to be at 205 lbs, and the Panthers don’t have a good 1B option behind him. Ultimately, a healthy Newton means more running plays, but the ratio might not drop all the way back down to a 50/50 split. Expect more of a 53/47 pass/run ratio.

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The other interesting dynamic at play is the turnover at the skill positions for Carolina. For a while, the Panthers passing attack was dominated by Steve Smith out wide and Greg Olsen up the seams, while Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams split the backfield. Steve Smith gave way to a short era featuring Kelvin Benjamin, but for the most part Newton’s supporting cast was pretty stable. This has not been the case the last couple of years; the wide receiver corps has gotten much younger and now boasts several new faces, Greg Olsen has struggled to stay on the field due to foot injuries (and has looked like a ghost of his old self when he does play), and the two-headed backfield has been replaced by do-everything back McCaffrey. With all the change, target shares have been fluctuating wildly as everyone jockeys for position in the new order. Predicting how it will turn out will be difficult, but there are a couple things we can keep in mind.

First, Christian McCaffrey received a huge boost when Newton hurt his shoulder. Through week 10, McCaffrey was averaging 6 receptions per game. From weeks 11-16, that number skyrocketed to 8.7. If Newton stays healthy, McCaffrey will struggle to replicate his record-setting pace from last year.

Second, the likelihood that Olsen comes back fully healthy at this point seems slim, but if he does he could easily command a huge target share. Carolina tight ends have been targeted well under 20% of the time while Olsen has struggled with injuries the last two seasons. Before that though, Olsen pushed the group to target shares as high as 30%.

Finally, the wide receiver corps is very young and still has much to improve on. D. J. Moore in particular led all Panther wideouts in targets despite being a rookie. Second year receiver Curtis Samuel also really started to heat up toward the end of the year after struggling with injuries to start his career. If the group continues to improve, it will be difficult to deny them targets. The group is still going through changes though as “veteran” (relatively speaking) receiver Devin Funchess is being allowed to leave in free agency.

Fantasy Impact

If Newton can stay healthy, the Panthers offense should return to a more run-heavy approach. It’s hard to envision a scenario where McCaffrey isn’t peppered with targets, but the degree to which that happens depends on the health of Olsen and the growth of Moore and Samuel.

Projected Team Rush Attempts: 475 Attempts
Projected Passing: 320 Completions on 505 Attempts, 35 sacks allowed
Projected WR Catches: 160 Receptions on 280 Targets
Projected RB Catches: 95 Receptions on 125 Targets
Projected TE Catches: 65 Receptions on 100 Targets

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