Carolina put its starting offensive unit on the field together for the first time last night. The results have Panther fans purring. All-pro center Ryan Kalil snapped the ball to Cam Newton, who let Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart do the bulk of the work before hitting an inspired Kelvin Benjamin on a nine-yard slant for a touchdown.
Newton was done for the night at that point. He threw just one other pass, a 12-yard completion, and that was all anyone needed to see on a wet and windy night. His short appearance was perfect as his Week 1 availability seems assured.
That’s not to say there isn’t a quarterback controversy brewing in Carolina. Veteran Derek Anderson did nothing to allay the fears and vitriol of Panthers fans with his latest performance. Anderson may lose his backup job to Joe Webb, who used his arm and feet to move the ball in the first two games. Assuming the sore shoulder that held him out last night is nothing serious, he could be Newton’s backup, although I’d be hard-pressed to recommend either as a handcuff just yet.
Rookie receiver Curtis Samuel also made his debut. The Panthers tried to show off their new toy, hitting him with six targets in his limited time. Samuel caught four of those but he could not break a big one like he has in practice, settling for 15 yards.
What did we learn?
Carolina’s local sportswriters say their opening drive was head coach Ron Rivera’s dream offense on display. It offered heavy doses of running punctuated by quick, short passes to extend drives. It certainly worked to perfection, with Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey carrying the ball four times each and Cam Newton hitting two different receivers for a first down and a touchdown.
If that is the pattern all year, Newton may see an increase in his traditionally average accuracy, but an overall negative fantasy impact. Of course, it is hard to know if Rivera plans to mix in an occasional big play to keep defenders honest or how much that will help Newton’s numbers.
On the other hand, Jonathan Stewart’s equal share of the running plays is very interesting. He finished the night with five carries for 39 yards, while his rookie partner took seven carries for only 21. Each back caught one pass as well.
Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker continue to battle for the third running back spot. Both could make the team as neither has done anything to warrant being released.
Whether it was Kalil’s return or Coach Rivera’s challenge to play more physically, the Panther offensive line played much better than last week. The quarterbacks and runners should be very comfortable if they maintain that form.
Meanwhile, the defensive rush had their way with Jacksonville’s offensive line. It is difficult to get too excited about manhandling what is known to be a deficient unit, but Carolina hopes it is a sign of what to expect in the regular season. Three sacks on Chad Henne and a 2.2 yards-per-carry against the Jaguars running backs is certainly promising.
Alarms are going off in my head about Cam Newton’s fantasy production. The opening drive is exactly what Carolina has said they wanted to do this season. Cam’s performance did nothing to reveal whether his throwing arm is back to full strength or not which will affect how defenses will respect the long ball.
Plans are to limit his running as much as possible, too. This will further diminish his fantasy potential. It looks like Cam Newton may be an efficient passer in a solid offense. They have some playmakers who can turn conservative passes into big gains. Newton will not be a washout by any means. But he might be something lower than the QB8 where he is getting drafted now.
The time share in the backfield will do little to diminish Christian McCaffrey’s hype. He is currently drafting at RB14. I don’t think we should expect a 3.0 yards per carry average in most games. On the other hand, Jonathan Stewart would be an absolute bargain at his current 9th round ADP (RB41). He ran as strong and quick as ever and does not seem ready to give his starting spot to the new guy.
Kelvin Benjamin has apparently had it with the talk of his weight and conditioning issues. He is back in form and playing hard. I still have some concern that his targets will be shorter and may affect his overall yardage, but he was the first guy Cam looked for in the red zone. It might not always be that way with tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Devin Funchess in the mix, but it may happen enough to keep Benjamin engaged and relevant.
Benjamin’s ADP slipped a little to a fourth round WR22. That may be close to where he ends up, with Funchess more of a touchdown-dependent, late-round asset.
Those other fantasy guys
Speaking of Greg Olsen, he put in a Cam-like performance, catching both his targets for 14 yards. It wasn’t much, but it was a reminder that he is still here and sits atop the list of fantasy-worthy tight ends for your draft. On my draft board, he is higher than Reed and Gronkowski for his consistency and durability.
Carolina’s starting defense mostly had its way with Jacksonville’s starters. Over the course of the night, however, special teams fell victim to a fake punt that went for 51 yards. Two silly defensive penalties set up a one-yard touchdown run and Chad Henne was held out of the end zone only by the drop of a perfect pass by rookie Keelan Cole.
So there is room for improvement, but still a probable top-ten fantasy finish for the Panthers defense. Kicker Graham Gano remains a consistent and reliable kicker who will likely finish close to last year’s K14.
So, that’s that
Carolina is looking forward to a successful real-life season. How their new offense alters their fantasy-relevance is questionable, but it seems ready to knock Cam Newton down a peg, along with his receivers.
But you never know… and that’s why we watch the games. In case you can’t watch every game, check back here at RealSport for fantasy updates all year long.
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