2016 fantasy football depth charts: Carolina Panthers
(Editor’s note: As we lead up to the season, Director of PFF Fantasy Jeff Ratcliffe is breaking down each team’s depth chart from a fantasy perspective. Catch up on the work so far here.)
At this time last year, very few had the Panthers going to the Super Bowl. But Ron Rivera’s squad put together one of the most impressive regular-season performances in recent memory. Despite their 15-1 record, the Panthers didn’t actually boast many fantasy standouts.
To be fair, Carolina is led by one of last season’s fantasy MVPs in Cam Newton. The former No. 1 overall pick broke out for a combined 45 touchdowns and led all quarterbacks in fantasy scoring. He managed this feat despite not putting up gaudy passing stats. Newton was among the lowest quarterbacks in dropbacks (557), and only completed 59.8 percent of his passes. Yet, he was able to rack up 35 passing scores, which tied for second in the league. Newton also made the most of his completions, racking up 63 percent of his passing yards through the air. Newton is also one of the league’s best running quarterbacks, and projects to lead quarterbacks in rushing yards and touchdowns. He remains solidified as a top-end fantasy option, and will likely be the first quarterback selected in most 2016 fantasy drafts.
Remarkably, Newton managed this performance with one of the most lackluster surrounding casts in the NFL. Things didn’t get much better for the Panthers this year on the personnel front, but WR Kelvin Benjamin will be returning from a torn ACL he sustained last preseason. Before that point, he was locked and loaded as the Panthers’ top receiving option. Reports on Benjamin’s recovery are positive, and it sounds like he’ll be a full-go for training camp. He’ll step right back into the No. 1 role, and along with Greg Olsen, will dominate the target share.
Carolina Panthers projected 2016 offense with 2015 grades:
In 2014, Benjamin accomplished the rare feat of topping 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie season, finishing 16th in fantasy scoring. He wasn’t extremely efficient on a per-route basis, with just 1.86 yards per route run, but Benjamin’s 142 targets ranked fifth among wide receivers. With the Panthers doing very little to upgrade their receiver corps, Benjamin should be in line for solid volume again. However, in a run-heavy offense, Benjamin is more of a borderline WR2.
Beyond Benjamin, second-year man Devin Funchess and veteran Ted Ginn round out the starters at receiver. Funchess has garnered some buzz in fantasy circles this offseason as a potential breakout player. Through the first 10 weeks last year, he played a minimal role and saw just 25 targets. His snaps increased down the stretch, but Funchess’ only 100-yard game came in Week 17. While he’s trending in the right direction, Funchess has the potential to be in a 2A/2B with Ginn.
Ginn was an unlikely fantasy asset in 2015 due to the Panthers shortage of wide receivers. He finished the year as fantasy’s No. 25 wide receiver thanks to a career-high 10 touchdown receptions. In his previous eight NFL seasons, Ginn scored a combined 11 receiving touchdowns. If there’s a more likely candidate for regression, we haven’t found him. Likewise, Benjamin’s return means Newton won’t have to depend on Ginn as much this season. Save Ginn for the occasional DFS punt.
Greg Olsen has finished as a top-10 fantasy tight end in each of the last four seasons, ranking fourth overall last year. Consistently targeted downfield, Olsen tied for fourth in average depth of target (10.8). Other than Tyler Eifert, he was the only tight end to score more than once on deep ball targets (he scored twice), and he tied with Rob Gronkowski for the position-high in deep ball receptions with eight. However, Olsen isn’t likely to do much damage after the catch, averaging just 4.7 yards and only forcing one missed tackle. Still, he ranked third among tight ends in targets (115), and that volume should continue in 2016. Olsen remains a high floor fantasy option, but his ceiling doesn’t rival that of Rob Gronkowski or Jordan Reed.
With DeAngelo Williams out of the mix, Jonathan Stewart was finally in the lead role for the Panthers last season. He responded by posting RB1 numbers over the first 14 weeks of the season before missing the last three games of the regular season with a foot injury. Despite the missed time, he tied for third among running backs in forced missed tackles with 56.
[Newton is almost everyone’s No. 1 quarterback, but how early is too early to pounce on the position? Check out our PFF Draft Master tool and try a mock draft, complete with offensive line grades, full projections and all the PFF data.]
With the Panthers extremely thin at running back, Stewart saw heavy volume. Excluding the three weeks he didn’t play, only Adrian Peterson had more carries than Stewart’s 242. With no major upgrades behind him, Stewart should continue to see the lion’s share of carries in the Panthers’ run-heavy offense. Last season, only the Bills ran a higher percentage of run plays. Stewart enters his age-29 season, but still has some fantasy tread left on his tires. Those looking to handcuff Stewart will want to look to Cameron Artis-Payne, but he’s unlikely to slide right in to a feature role should Stewart get hurt.
Carolina is loaded up on the defensive site of the ball. On the defensive line, DT Kawann Short is coming off a breakout year and deserves strong DL2 consideration. The Panthers are also expected to move DE Kony Ealy into an every-down role. Ealy was the best player not named Von Miller in the Super Bowl, and has the potential to enter the DL2 conversation. At linebacker, Luke Kuechly is locked in as the top fantasy option, and Thomas Davis remains an LB3-plus option.