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Make the Case: The Panthers Have a Fantasy Football Offense Worth Investing In

Christian McCaffrey is a clear star, but further down draft boards you’ll find plenty of undervalued assets like Cam Newton, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel

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It’s early August, which means it’s time once again to argue about fantasy football. Who should you take with the no. 1 pick? Which offenses and players will surprise you? Which draft picks will completely tear your office apart? Welcome to “Make the Case,” a series in which Ringer staffers answer the most pressing fantasy questions heading into the 2019 season. We’ll help you game your way to a championship—or at least avoid drafting like David Gettleman.

A few of the best ways to find value in fantasy football drafts include identifying breakout and bounce-back contenders or taking fliers on ADP-depressed players coming off of an injury. Heading into 2019, the Panthers offense features a player or two in every one of those categories. Now, it’s no secret that running back Christian McCaffrey is a fantasy superstar; he’s a rock-solid top-five pick in all formats and is ranked no. 1 overall in The Ringer’s top-150 PPR list. But there’s plenty of gold to mine elsewhere on that squad, which could be poised for a major jump forward this season. From quarterback Cam Newton to receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel and tight ends Greg Olsen and Ian Thomas, a bevy of this team’s offensive weapons look undervalued according to consensus ADP. I’m buying the Panthers offense in 2019, and you should too.

Let’s start out with Newton, who’s coming off draft boards on average as the QB10 with an ADP of 92. Now, granted, Newton did finish last season as the QB12, seemingly confirming that his current draft position is appropriate, but recency bias is playing a part in what looks to be his majorly discounted value: Newton battled a shoulder injury that severely limited his ability to pass the ball deep down the field late in the season, and after starting off the year hot, he faded badly down the stretch. Newton was the overall QB5 through Week 11, averaging 22.9 points per game, but over the next three weeks, his performance cratered and he was put on ice for Carolina’s final two outings, tanking his value in fantasy and creating plenty of question marks for his future.

But Newton underwent surgery in January and has slowly rebuilt the strength in his shoulder over the offseason. He showed up to Carolina camp sporting a more compact throwing motion, with a sleeker, smoother, and slightly quicker windup that could help him improve his timing and accuracy down the field. Newton’s surgically-repaired shoulder could be the key to helping Carolina open up its deep passing attack, which has been largely missing for most of the past two seasons (Carolina’s deep-target percentage was just 10.4 percent in 2017 and 2018 combined, the fifth-lowest, per Pro Football Focus). Early in Newton’s career, that was a staple of the team’s offense, and from 2011 to 2014, the dual-threat signal-caller was one of the most efficient deep ball passers in the league as he tossed bombs to Ted Ginn Jr. and Steve Smith. He’s got a chance to get back to his roots in that area this year with Moore and Samuel streaking down the sideline (more on those two later), and that gives him tons of upside on the fantasy passing side of the equation.

Of course, there’s two parts to Newton’s fantasy output, and his rushing ability is what truly gives him league-winning potential. As PFF’s Scott Barrett points out, rushing yards are worth two-and-a-half times as much as passing yards in virtually every popular fantasy format, and rushing touchdowns are worth one-and-a-half times as much as passing scores. The 6-foot-5 245-pounder may not be utilized on quite as many designed runs now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, but he’s still dangerous in the open field and is one of the league’s most dynamic red-zone threats because of his ability to pull the ball back and take it in himself. Newton got a career-low 10 carries inside the 10-yard line last year—the same number as Melvin Gordon, by the way—and converted those opportunities into three scores (he scored four touchdowns on the ground, total). I’d expect a positive regression in that area, and don’t be surprised if Newton converts more red-zone carries into touchdowns in 2019. All told, Newton’s got a rushing floor that most quarterbacks don’t have, and he’s poised for a career year as a passer thanks to what’s perhaps the most talented skill-position group he’s had around him. He’s a seventh-round pick with top-5 scoring potential at the position.

Of course, Newton will need some help, and Moore will play a big part in what could be a Panthers offensive explosion this year. The second-year receiver is one of the most promising breakout candidates in the NFL; he joined elite company last year as a rookie, adding his name to the short list of 21-year-olds to go over 700 yards receiving in their first year in the league (a group that also includes Josh Gordon, DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Amari Cooper, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Saquon Barkley). Rookie receivers often take two or three seasons to produce fantasy numbers, but Moore caught 55 passes for 788 yards and two touchdowns, proving that he deserved to be the team’s first-round pick last April.

Moore’s an uber-athletic and physical runner after the catch, and ranked first in the NFL in missed tackles forced per reception (0.31) and second in yards after the catch per reception (7.91), according to PFF. He can get deep too, though, and with a near-complete skill-set as a route runner, pass catcher, and creator in the open field, Moore looks ready to take his game to the next level. He currently has an ADP of 59th overall and is the WR25 in PPR formats (a high-end WR3), but offers upside to jump into the midrange-WR2 area, especially with a boost in the touchdown column. He is not alone in the competition for “breakout star of 2019” though—not even on his own team.

Samuel is giving Moore a run for his money as everyone’s favorite future star: After showing a lot of promise down the stretch last year—he caught 20 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown in a five-game stretch during December, a clip that would’ve put him at 64 catches for 954 yards and three scores over a full season—the third-year pro is getting hyped up by virtually everyone, including media, teammates, and coaches. “He’s had the most growth out of any player I’ve ever seen in terms of as a player, confidence ... everything,” said Torrey Smith. “He’s got foot speed that’s rare,” opined McCaffrey. “Not just in the league. I’d say in the world.” As head coach Ron Rivera noted, Samuel is “light years” ahead of where he was as a rookie, “and now he has taken an even bigger leap.”

The former Ohio State star came into the league as a raw speedster and has since refined his game, cleaning up his release off the line while polishing his route running. Yahoo’s Matt Harmon tracked Samuel’s routes from 2018 for the Reception Perception project, and found that he was incredibly efficient … basically everywhere.

At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Samuel doesn’t have the size or tackle-breaking prowess that Moore possesses, but he’s got elite speed—he notched a 4.31 second 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine—and Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner will undoubtedly find ways to utilize him in the team’s offense. Samuel is currently the WR42 with an ADP of 109th overall. He’s a screaming deal as the potential no. 1 in the Panthers passing attack.

While the Panthers’ dynamic receiving duo has grabbed most of the fantasy headlines, don’t forget about Olsen, the wily veteran tight end, who returns to action after being hobbled the past two years with a foot injury. In his prime, Olsen was a dynamic mismatch weapon up the seam and went over 1,000 yards for three straight seasons from 2014 to 2016. Now 34, he’s probably not going to beat many linebackers with pure speed, but he’s still a reliable pass catcher with a proven connection to Newton over the middle. The current TE16, with an ADP of 143rd overall, Olsen’s one of my favorite late-round injury fliers in an extremely thin tight end group this year; he’s got upside as a low-end TE1, and you can get him in the late rounds. Oh, and speaking of late-round dart throws, I’ve been taking Thomas with my last pick in plenty of drafts. If Olsen goes down again this year, Thomas has an intriguing skill-set to take over in that middle-of-the-field playmaker role. The 6-foot-3 260-pounder caught fire as a rookie late last year, catching 25 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns in five December games (which prorates to 80 catches, 787 yards, and six TDs over a full season). He’s stuck behind Olsen for now, but he’s not a bad gamble and he’s basically free.

The Panthers offense is the perfect storm for potential fantasy draft value. Their late-season slump to end last year, combined with the potential to produce big bounce-back and breakout stars, make them a group I’m consistently targeting on draft day.