Last season, while the Panthers’ passing offense, numerically, looked not at all disparate to any other Cam Newton-era year (around 3,100 pass yds., 20 TDs, 14 INTs, 60% comp.), it became far more obvious that he now has a favorite target in WR Kelvin Benjamin.
That being stated, during a majority of the 2014 season, Cam Newton showed little faith in the playmaking ability of his veteran true-WR targets, often looking down the gargantuan Benjamin or looking off to a threatening Greg Olsen at TE – otherwise, if not attempting to force a pass down-field to one of those two, more often than not, Newton would seek to hastily make ends meet with his own pair of legs – hence, the Panthers’ more-than-wanting 7-9 record for 2014 (albeit somehow the making playoffs).
Breaking down Newton’s targeting spectrum from last year, we can clearly see that his favorite down-field targets are, invariably, WR Kelvin Benjamin, who was targeted 146 times last year, and; TE Greg Olsen, who saw (hopefully) 122 targets – the next most-frequently-targeted player for the 2014 season was WR Jerricho Cotchery, who, in comparison, only became the desired target 78 times – just above half the attempted connections as Benjamin.
If it weren’t for the fact that out of the 146 passes that went Benjamin’s way, only 73 of them were successfully brought down (exactly 50%) – compared to Olsen’s 84 look-ins out of his 122 targets (68.8%), and even Cotchery’s 48 catches out of his 78 looks (61.5%) – one would assume that Newton’s rationale for having sent so many passes towards Benjamin would’ve been completely justifiable. As it turns out, though, just because a quarterback thinks one of his receivers can out-position, out-jump, or out-run his coverage (and in this case, who could really blame him?) – it doesn’t necessarily mean he will – granted, Newton’s other receiving options aren’t necessarily stellar wideouts, but it would seem that their passing philosophy could do with some tinkering.
Fast-forward to the Panthers’ training camp this past Wednesday, Aug. 19th – with their receiving core now featuring yet another behemoth WR in a barely-legal-to-drink Devin Funchess (21-years-old), who, for all intents and purposes, would make the ideal training partner and perfect opposite-end complement for Benjamin, one would surmise that Sir Newton would have much to look forward to next season in spreading the field with serious threats on either side of him.
It’s strange how life works, sometimes – during the Aug. 19th practice, Kelvin Benjamin would suffer some seemingly-minor knee injury – later, an MRI scan would reveal a small tear in Benjamin’s ACL, potentially (likely) ending his participation in the upcoming 2015 season.
Dynamic Duo pic.twitter.com/YUmkHMu1v2
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) June 2, 2015
So what does it all mean for the Panthers, moving forward?
It means that, from an offensive standpoint, they are basically right back where they were last year – essentially, Devin Funchess would now have to take the reps that Kelvin Benjamin would be assigned, and moreover, he’ll have to take extra special care to not get injured – any further, anyway (Funchess also suffered a minor hamstring pull during the same practice).
It means that ancillary receiving targets – namely WRs Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Ted Ginn, Jr. – will really have to perform beyond expectations to prove that they want the starting job, as it’s almost certain that the Panthers will be soon to scour the free agent market for an emergency WR1 signing.
It means Greg Olsen will, once again, be heavily relied upon to move the ball through the air if they are to establish a justifiable passing threat, and it means that they’d better have it as a goal to devote themselves in regaining the ability to effectively run the football if they are going to stand any chance of becoming a viable playoff contender and/or the NFC South division winner for 2015.
Let’s talk fantasy football, then – here’s what to expect from the major-production Panthers players this year:
Cam Newton as a QB1, despite all else, has shown rather remarkable consistency in his numbers – depending on who they sign as a fill-in for Benjamin, his numbers could slightly improve or slightly worsen – look for similar stats as last year: 3,100 passing yards, 450 rushing yards, 20 TDs, 14 INTs, as discussed earlier (had he a healthy Kelvin Benjamin this year, it’s likely Newton’s numbers would looked more like 3,500 passing yards, 550 rushing yards, 25 TDs, 15 INTs).
Greg Olsen as a TE1 is a must-own, given all of the WR-injury controversy in North Carolina – he is heavily-targeted, and he makes big down-field plays; look for him to bring in close to 90 receptions this year, complemented by 900 receiving yards and about 8 receiving TDs.
It has yet to be seen how important the Panthers’ running game is to them – for all intents and purposes, it seems Jonathan Stewart will be the starter – if his stats turn out to be anything close to last year’s, he’s a serviceable RB2: 750 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs should be in reach for him – don’t expect any significant amount of either receptions or receiving yards from him.
Now, to address the elephant in the room: the Panthers’ receivers, as they are, cannot be largely trusted from a fantasy aspect – if Devin Funchess translates to Kelvin Benjamin 2.0 – and that’s a big “if” – then by all means, he’ll net around 1,100 receiving yards and around 8 receiving TDs – except, he’s a rookie. Granted, Kelvin Benjamin started under very similar circumstances, but the thing is, it is highly likely that teams will have already figured out how to more or less effectively reduce the threat of a big WR by now, especially division rivals who will almost surely study Kelvin Benjamin in-game footage.
Otherwise, it’s unwise to assume that Carolina’s remaining WR core will produce exemplary fantasy stats out-of-the-blue; even if the Panthers end up signing someone noteworthy, that player will have little to no chemistry with Newton for a majority of the season – if they sign a free-agent WR1, it would be recommended to treat that signee as a WR2 or WR3.