Carolina Panthers Buying Guide

 Rookie Christian McCaffrey is one of the most buzzed about fantasy options but is his ADP too high? 

IKEA instruction manuals have always flummoxed me, possibly because I’m more of a verbal learner than a visual learner. More likely because I’m just dim. Whenever I try to put together something from IKEA – a dresser, a bookcase, whatever – I’ll get to about Step 3, become hopelessly stuck on some visual cue that I can’t interpret, then throw a mini-tantrum before stalking away, vowing to return the godforsaken item and to boycott all things Swedish for eternity. Then my wife takes over assembly duty and puts the thing together in under 10 minutes.

The Panthers’ offense looks like an IKEA instruction manual to me. It has some weird Swedish product name like “Oovensklüt” and doesn’t include any words, just illustrations. Step 1 is a picture of a dabbing Cam Newton surrounded by a force field. Step 2 shows Christian McCaffrey with a football tucked in the crook of his arm, running past would-be tacklers. Step 3 depicts Curtis Samuel tracking a ball overhead as lightning bolts emanate from his cleats. Other steps show Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, Jonathan Stewart and Devin Funchess hard at work. It all makes sense at first glance, but then I start going through the steps, quickly become confused and fall into despair. Maybe Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula can make sense of it. Mostly I’m confused about how the new pieces (McCaffrey and Samuel) fit into a Newton-propelled offense.

Newton’s 52.9 percent completion percentage last season wasn’t that bad … for a starting NFL quarterback in 1968. Granted, pinpoint accuracy has never been Newton’s stock-in-trade, but a completion percentage of 52.9% in today’s NFL is roughly equivalent to a 43% completion percentage during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency. Improved health should help matters – Newton was batted around last season like a piñata at an 8-year-old’s birthday party – but it’s worrisome that Cam wasn’t able to take part in OTAs after having surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Also worrisome: that Carolina’s starting left tackle will be Matt Kalil, to whom the Panthers gifted a five-year, $55.5 million contract and a truckload of guaranteed money even though he often plays as if he were holding a red cape.

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Having a nimble dump-off target like McCaffrey should in theory spare Newton some punishment and boost his completion percentage, though Cam has averaged only 55.7 completions to running backs per season over his six-year career. He’s just never been the check-down type. But let’s say Newton does start checking down and dumping off. That would probably mean fewer rushing attempts, and rushing numbers are at the core of Newton’s fantasy appeal. (Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has even said he’d like to have Newton do less running.)

Newton has a Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of QB11. Some see that as a discount in light of Newton’s track record, and I tend to agree. His previous fantasy finishes, in chronological order, are QB3, QB4, QB3, QB14 (in 2014, when he missed two games), QB1 and QB19. If the price is right, I’m willing to take the leap of faith that Cam’s arm is sound and that a reduction in rushing attempts won’t completely throttle his value.

I’ve been itching to draft Christian McCaffrey since the first time I watched him play at Stanford. His skill set is tailor-made for the modern NFL. Back in March, I landed McCaffrey in a draft with pick 6.04. These days, getting McCaffrey that late is a pipe dream. He’s routinely going in the third round of MFL drafts, occasionally in the second. His ADP on Fantasy Football Calculator is RB14. The rise of McCaffrey’s ADP clearly has more to do with his draft spot (eighth overall) than his landing spot. McCaffrey’s versatility would have made him a nice fit with any number of teams, but perhaps not with a team that has a quarterback who dominates the ball like a shoot-first point guard.

It’s disappointing that McCaffrey’s ADP is so helium-filled, but I don’t care. I’m still eagerly buying him. The third and fourth rounds of this year’s fantasy drafts are minefields, and McCaffrey is one of my favorite mine sweepers.

Jonathan Stewart has long been an undervalued fantasy asset and has a chance to provide sneaky value in 2017, but again, the instruction manual for this offense is beyond my understanding. There are too many dowels, and some of them won’t fit into any of the holes. Stewart had nine touchdowns last season, his best total since 2009, but he averaged 3.8 yards per carry and caught only eight passes. Even if you think Stewart will have a significant role despite the presence of McCaffrey, you’re obligated to consider than Stewart is now 30 and hasn’t played more than 13 games since 2011. His ADP is RB41, which seems about right.

You probably saw the photo of Kelvin Benjamin looking out of shape at the Panthers’ OTAs.


I wasn’t about to join in on the fat-shaming. It’s more of a personal thing than a holier-than-thou thing – I was a doughy kid. Then I got to college, where a limited budget wasn’t always enough to cover food, alcohol, cigarettes and CDs. I’d sometimes ration food to leave funds for the other stuff, and before long the excess weight was gone. But while I have empathy for Benjamin, that doesn’t mean I want him on my fantasy teams.

To show up out of shape for OTAs suggests a lack of professional commitment. Most NFL players only have a few years to make hay before their bodies wear out or someone comes along to take their jobs. A player who risks squandering those precious years by failing to take care of his body is probably a poor fantasy investment. And it’s not just about fitness with Benjamin. For instance, on the Week 14 play where Newton appeared to have hurt his shoulder, an end zone throw to Benjamin that the Chargers’ Trovon Reed intercepted and returned for a touchdown, Benjamin easily could have tackled Reed but completely dogged it, and Newton wound up landing awkwardly on his shoulder while making an earnest attempt to keep Reed from scoring. Despite his 6-5 frame, 83-inch wingspan and some early-career flashes of dominance, I want no part of Benjamin at his ADP of WR22.

Devin Funchess never struck me as being an NFL-caliber receiver during his college days at Michigan, and he’s done little to change that opinion in his two years with the Panthers. The 6-5, 230-pound Funchess is an inviting end zone target who has nine touchdowns on 54 career catches, but he struggles to get separation and ends up wearing defenders almost as snuggly as Hannibal Lecter wore the flesh of his cell guard in “The Silence of the Lambs.” He’s a tolerable late-round dart, but there are better end-of-draft YOLO choices.

Carolina spent a second-round pick on Curtis Samuel, a dual run-catch threat from Ohio State who has 4.3 speed and produced 1,636 yards from scrimmage for the Buckeyes last fall. It’s hard to see Samuel offering weekly fantasy value rather than just the occasional splash play. He’ll have just turned 21 when the season begins, and he’s only 5-11, 196 pounds. Samuel could have bonus value in the running game, but rushing yardage for wide receivers isn’t very bankable (take heed, Tyreek Hill enthusiasts), and the presence of McCaffrey figures to limit Samuel’s rushing attempts. It’s worth noting that Josh Norris of Rotoworld (@JoshNorris), a shrewd judge of talent, is high on Samuel and thinks he could play a substantial role as a two-in-one replacement for ex-Panthers Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown. Samuel is an intriguing penny stock.

Greg Olsen has been a rock at tight end for the Panthers and fantasy owners alike. He’s strung together three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and hasn’t missed a game in nine years. Olsen is 32, but lest you worry about age-related decline, consider that he averaged 11.2 yards per catch before turning 30 and has averaged 13.9 yards per catch in the two years since. He carries an ADP of TE3, behind only Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce, which makes sense. But if I don’t get one of the top two, I’m waiting on a tight end.

Cam Newton QB11 QB10 Buy if price is right
Christian McCaffrey RB14 RB11 All in
Jonathan Stewart RB41 RB36 Consider
Kelvin Benjamin WR22 WR33 Abstain
Curtis Samuel WR74 Maybe late
Devin Funchess WR70 WR67 Pass
Greg Olsen TE3 TE3 A respectful pass