Fitz on Fantasy: 2019 Carolina Panthers Buying Guide

Suppose your car is making a funny noise, the “check engine” light goes on, and you can’t pinpoint the problem yourself. So you take your car into the shop, and instead of encountering a head mechanic named Al or Hank who’s heavyset and has tattoos on his forearms and nicotine stains on his fingers, the person who’ll be diagnosing your car is a young, thin, well-kempt, bespectacled fellow named Bertram who looks like he just got his MBA from Wharton.

Would you trust Bertram?

I’d trust Bertram. Maybe he doesn’t look like the archetypal mechanic, but he looks smart and capable, and there’s no discernible reason to trust him any less than Al or Hank. Hell, I might trust him more than Al or Hank.

Christian McCaffrey is not what a No. 1 overall fantasy draft pick usually looks like. Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott are the Al and Hank of that particular shop. They’re what we expect our No. 1 picks to look like. McCaffrey is … different. He’s slightly built (5-11, 205), resembling some third-down scatback more than a feature back, and, well, he’s white. 

He’s also pretty bad-ass. McCaffrey made his mark as a pass-catching RB when he entered the league in 2017, but then he hit the turbo button last year, finishing with 1,098 rushing yards, 867 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. In his final two seasons at Stanford, McCaffrey averaged 183.1 scrimmage yards per game and scored 31 TDs. He has sub-4.5 speed and a 98th percentile agility score, according to

If everyone is going to insist on playing in PPR or half-point PPR leagues, the top overall draft pick has to be a prolific pass catcher. McCaffrey has 187 receptions over his first two professional seasons. Last year he had 11 or more catches in three different games. This guy is built for the modern game. He is Thoroughly Modern McCaffrey.

Barkley was the No. 1 running back in PPR formats last year, edging out McCaffrey by 0.3 points. But McCaffrey barely played in a meaningless Week 17 game, while Barkley closed the season with 142 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. (Todd Gurley finished just ahead of Barkley and McCaffrey in half-point PPR formats.)

McCaffrey almost never came off the field last year, playing 97% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps before getting some well-deserved rest in the season finale. He won’t match that snap percentage this year, but with basically nothing behind him in the Carolina backfield, he’ll be plenty busy.

You can make a decent case for Barkley, Alvin Kamara or (if he ends his holdout, like, tomorrow) Elliott as the top overall pick. I feel safest with McCaffrey, a multitalented workhorse playing in a good offense.

Either we’re still really concerned about the shoulder injury that derailed Cam Newton’s 2018 season, or we’re failing to fully appreciate one of the best quarterbacks of this decade. That goes for me, too. I have Newton ranked QB8 – and that’s after bumping him up a couple of spots last month. Newton’s average draft position is QB10. 

Granted, it’s hard to erase the memory of an injured Newton throwing wobblers at his receivers’ feet late in a Monday-night loss to the Saints in Week 15, when he shouldn’t have been on the field. Newton is being worked sparingly in training camp after his second shoulder in three years, but he’s expected to be full-go by Week 1.

Bobby Sylvester of (@bobbyfantasypro) recently noted that Newton’s fantasy finishes in seasons where he’s played all 16 games are QB3, QB4, QB3, QB1 and QB2. He was QB4 through the first 12 weeks of 2018 before his shoulder started ailing and the wheels fell off. 

In recent years Newton’s top receivers were lumbering oxen Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Now, Cam has a pair of cheetahs at receiver, two quality tight ends and, of course, McCaffrey.

I’m not aggressively targeting any single quarterback this year – the position is just so-o-o-o deep – but if Cam starts to slip in any of my drafts I’ll be tempted to grab him.  

Many of the sharper fantasy football pundits like both D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel this year. The fondness for Moore is reflected in his expert consensus ranking. With Samuel … not so much. I tend to believe that ECR gap is wider than it should be, which is why I haven’t been getting Moore in drafts but have been an eager Samuel investor.

I admit to having a slight hang-up with Moore that’s probably unfair. In his final college season at Maryland, Moore paid a visit to my alma mater, Wisconsin, and was locked down by Nick Nelson, a good-but-not-great cornerback who was probably better known for wearing a hoodie under his jersey than for his cover skills. Granted, the Terrapins’ quarterbacking was abysmal that season, and for all I know Moore could have been playing through some sort of hidden injury. But he had only three catches for 44 yards and spent most of the afternoon wearing Moore like a well-tailored suit.

That game was something of an anomaly for Moore (though he also had dud performances against Michigan and Ohio State that year). He had a massive share of Maryland’s receiving yardage and TD catches and was the lone bright spot in a passing attack that otherwise might not have distinguished itself in the Ivy League. Moore broke out in college at an early age (a good indicator of future NFL success), and he’s a terrific all-around athlete with a 92nd percentile SPARQ-x score.

The poor game against the Badgers is the lesser of the two reasons I have mild trepidation about paying the freight for Moore in drafts. The greater reason is that I think so highly of Samuel.

Matt Harmon of Yahoo (@MattHarmon_BYB) looks carefully at wide receivers in his Reception Perception series and came away smitten with Samuel. Harmon noted that Samuel had a 76.6% success rate against man coverage (which is 94th percentile), a 74.6% success rate vs. press coverage and a 73.7% contested catch rate. In short, Samuel is proving to be a superb route runner who knows how to leverage his blazing 4.31 speed.

When the Panthers took Samuel early in the second round of the 2017 draft, it was hard to figure out what sort of NFL player he’d be since he was used in such a gadgety way at Ohio State. Most of his receptions came within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. Samuel routinely lined up in the backfield and had more carries (172) than catches (107) during his three seasons in Columbus. (And we should bake a little rushing value into Samuel’s fantasy valuation, since he’s rushed for 148 yards and two TDs over his first two seasons.)

I fear that Samuel’s ADP will creep upward in August as smart people such as Harmon continue to sing his praises. But for now, he’s a compelling buy at his modest ADP.

There’s little WR talent in Carolina behind Moore and Samuel. Any of Jarius WrightChris Hogan and Torrey Smith would have minimal upside even with an injury to one of the starters.

Greg Olsen is going to make a terrific studio analyst or color man when he eventually retires. The 12-year veteran is charismatic, insightful, funny and erudite. He’s been a hell of a player, too. At his peak he averaged 76.6 catches, 968.8 yards and 5.4 touchdowns over a five-year span from 2012 through 2016, including three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The Bears traded Olsen to the Panthers for pennies on the dollar in 2011 because Chicago’s offensive coordinator at the time, Mike Martz, didn’t have much use for a tight end in his system – and Bears fans have been cursing Martz over it ever since. 

What does Olsen have left after breaking his foot early last season and then reinjuring it late in the year? He can still be a useful fantasy asset if he’s at even 75% of peak Olsen, but at age 34 and with recent foot issues?

I’m wary of Olsen at his ADP of TE16. Even though rookie tight ends typically struggle, I would rather cast my lot with young stud T.J. Hockenson than with a past-peak Olsen.

One rookie TE who didn’t struggle much at all was Ian Thomas, who caught 36 of 49 targets for 33 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas was especially effective late in the year, with 25-246-2 in five December games. A fourth-round pick out of Indiana, Thomas is a 6-4, 259-pounder with above-average speed and agility. 

It’s unlikely Thomas will have any stand-alone fantasy value with Olsen around, but if anything happened to the elder statesman, Thomas would become a hot waiver pickup.

Cam NewtonQB8QB7QB10Nicely priced
Christian McCaffreyRB1RB2RB2No. 1 overall
D.J. MooreWR25WR23WR27Gentle fade
Curtis SamuelWR36WR39WR43Buy
Greg OlsenTE21TE18TE16Not anymore
Ian ThomasTE26TE31TE19Watch list

ADP = Average Draft Position  ECR = Expert Consensus Ranking  (based on half-PPR scoring)