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Team Previews

Carolina Panthers Fantasy Football Preview

by Denny Carter
Updated On: June 22, 2022, 1:39 pm ET

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2021 Stats (Rank)

Total Offense: 5,081 (30th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 31 (t-28th)
Offensive Plays: 1,106 (10th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 651 (11th)
Rush Attempts: 4455 (14th)
Vacated Targets: 85 (25th)
Vacated Carries: 112 (13th)

Coaching Staff

Matt Rhule conducted a masterclass in salesmanship this offseason to keep his job after yet another disastrous season as Carolina’s head coach in 2021. He convinced David Tepper, the team’s increasingly impatient owner, to give him another shot to transform the Panthers from unceasingly miserable to merely down-bad in 2022. Through two seasons, Rhule -- who may have been hired because he once worked as a short-order cook -- is 10-23, ranking 24th and 26th in point differential in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Rhule's obsession with signing players from Temple, where he coached from 2013 to 2016, has perplexed Panthers players, coaches, and agents alike. It has not yet paid dividends. 

Rhule’s prospects of roaming the Carolina sideline in the second half of the season are close to zero if the Panthers don’t get off to a respectable start. 

Firing offensive coordinator Joe Brady after Week 12 in 2021 was, according to Rhule, supposed to usher in a glorious era of run-first football for Carolina. That didn’t quite come to fruition, as the team’s pass rate went from 56 percent under Brady to 63 percent under the team’s interim OC. The Panthers have since hired Ben McAdoo to head their anemic offense. McAdoo, 44, was the Giants’ offensive coordinator from 2014 to 2015 and New York’s head coach from 2016 to 2017. 

McAdoo is best known for his facial hair and for mercifully putting an end to the late-stage Eli Manning era in New York. The G-people had some success under McAdoo’s watch, finishing top-10 in yards in 2014 and scoring the sixth-most points in the NFL in 2015. The team’s offense tanked during his two years as head coach. In 2017, the Giants were 31st in points and 23rd in yardage. 

The best-case scenario for Carolina in 2022 is McAdoo’s quarterback-friendly offense turning Sam Darnold into a functional NFL signal caller. In New York, McAdoo ran an up-tempo offense that went no huddle as often as any offense in the league. His system, in the tradition of the west coast offense, is predicated on getting the ball out quickly to pass catchers in space. It’s supposed to be an efficient, hurry-up attack that catches opposing defenses off guard and puts the ball in the hands of the team’s playmakers. 

Passing Offense

QB: Sam Darnold, Matt Corral, P.J. Walker

WR: D.J. Moore, Rashard Higgins

WR: Robbie Anderson, Brandon Zylstra 

WR: Terrace Marshall, Shi Smith

TE: Tommy Tremble, Ian Thomas

Sam Darnold, after somehow skating by on five rushing touchdowns over his first four games as a Panther, played some of the worst football in recent memory as Carolina’s QB. From Week 5 to 9, Darnold threw an astounding eight interceptions to two touchdowns, never averaging more than 5.4 yards per pass attempt. He then lost the starting gig due to injury or poor play -- it wasn’t exactly clear. It’s difficult to exaggerate how bad Darnold was. No quarterback had a worse rating on passes from a three-step drop, no QB was worse when using pre-snap motion, and almost no one was worse when facing pressure. Darnold has an $18.9 million cap number for 2022, the 12th-highest among quarterbacks. 

Matt Corral will be under center for the Panthers in 2022; it’s only a matter of when. Taken with the 94th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Corral could give Carolina no choice but to start him if he plays well in training camp and during the preseason. His mobility and ability to evade pressure would add an element Darnold doesn’t deliver consistently. 

In his fourth NFL season, D.J. Moore looked to put it together as both a downfield threat and a short-area dominator. Moore through Week 6 was a top-10 fantasy receiver, commanding double digit targets in five of his first seven games and had the NFL’s sixth-highest weighted opportunity rating (WOPR), a metric that evaluates player production by combining target share and receiving yards share. His production fell off around midseason as he saw errant passes from a completely washed Cam Newton, who had (by far) the NFL’s lowest completion rate over expected in 2021. Moore somehow finished as fantasy’s WR18 despite horrific quarterback play. If Darnold or Corral can be even passably decent in 2022, Moore should comfortably outperform his redraft ADP. 

Robbie Anderson, who has openly pondered retiring instead of returning to the worst franchise in the NFL, will again slot in as Carolina’s No. 2 wideout. Once a lightning-fast deep threat with Darnold in New York, Anderson has turned into an intermediate pass catcher, posting the two lowest yards per reception over his past two years with the Panthers. In 2021, the bottom fell out of Anderson’s yards per target (4.7). Only three receivers who ran over 150 routes last season had a lower YPT. It makes no sense, but it is what it is unless and until McAdoo fixes Anderson’s nonsensical usage. A little more luck with downfield targets would offer Anderson some hope for spiked fantasy weeks: He caught just three of his 19 deep targets last season, thanks to the Panthers quarterbacks’ nightmarish accuracy issues.  Anderson, who barely finished as a top-50 fantasy receiver last year, might suffice as a WR4 in deeper formats this season. McAdoo’s offensive system in 2016 supported two fantasy-relevant wideouts: Odell Beckham, fantasy’s WR4, and Sterling Shepard, who caught 65 passes on his way to a WR35 finish. 

Tight end has an eyebrow-raising history in McAdoo’s offense. Evan Engram in 2017 led the Giants in targets (115), receptions (65), and touchdowns (6), lining up in the slot on 25 percent of his routes and out wide on 13 percent. Perhaps similar usage for Tommy Tremble -- who saw some late-season run in 2021 -- could make him a usable fantasy option in 2022. A solid athlete with an 87th percentile burst score, Tremble could see usage in a quick-hitting passing offense if McAdoo sees fit for Tremble to run consistent routes over Ian Thomas, the least efficient pass catcher in recent fantasy history. The Athletic’s Joseph Person in May said Tremble “is more likely [than Thomas] to emerge as a receiving threat after showing playmaking glimpses as a rookie.”

In the most disappointing rookie campaign of 2021, Terrace Marshall -- the team’s second-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft -- caught 17 of 30 targets while being phased out of the Carolina offense in favor of Brandon Zylstra and other receivers who are definitely real. Rhule and McAdoo have insinuated that Marshall is the favorite to land the Panthers’ slot receiver spot following impressive showings during OTAs and minicamp. In his best showing as a rookie, Marshall caught four passes for 48 yards against Houston in Week 3, lining up in the slot on 59 percent of his routes. Marshall, a productive pass catcher at LSU and a draftnik favorite in 2021, likely won’t be fantasy relevant unless Carolina receivers -- particularly Moore -- miss time this season. 

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Running Offense

RB: Christian McCaffrey, D’Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard

OL: Brady Christensen, Ikem Ekwonu, Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett, Taylor Moton

McCaffrey, as fantasy managers are painfully aware, has missed 23 of Carolina’s 33 games since the team made him the highest-paid running back in the league. From a shoulder sprain to a hip injury to a hamstring tear to multiple ankle issues, McCaffrey has broken down after his 403-touch 2019 campaign. Perhaps CMC, at 5’11” and 202 pounds, wasn’t cut out for 400-touch seasons. It’s one theory. 

Dr. Edwin Porras, who specializes in physical therapy, has pushed back on the narrative that McCaffrey is doomed to injury proneness for the rest of his NFL days. His physical issues in 2020 and 2021 were “almost completely, incidental injuries,” Porras said. “There's approximately a 10-15 percent chance of re-injury to the hamstring but otherwise fading McCaffrey for sustaining the most common injuries to the position seems illogical. Nobody can predict health - but the greater sample indicates the probabilities of a second rash of injuries is unlikely.” Porras is a doctor; I am not. 

CMC has dominated during his rare healthy games since the start of the 2020 season, functioning as the centerpiece of the Panthers’ rushing attack and passing offense. McAdoo, with a history of getting the ball out quickly to capable pass catchers, should be expected to design myriad ways to dump it off to McCaffrey and let him produce after the catch. His stratospheric fantasy upside -- even with a reduction in carries -- makes him worthy of a top-five pick if one can stomach such a thing. McCaffrey, for what it’s worth, has reportedly consulted fellow pass-catching marvel Marshall Faulk about avoiding injuries and recovering from ailments. Adjust your ranks. 

Behind McCaffrey this year are D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. There’s vanishingly little reason to think Hubbard will retain his role as the Panthers’ RB1 in the case of another CMC injury following a horrid 2021 campaign in which Hubbard finished second to last in rush yards over expected per attempt, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Only Mike Davis was worse. Despite seeing 66 percent of high-value touches (receptions plus touches inside the ten yard line) in the Carolina backfield while McCaffrey was sidelined, Hubbard was barely fantasy viable. Panthers beat writers said Hubbard has struggled in offseason practices too. Look for Foreman, who made a years-long recovery from an Achilles injury to return to form in 2021, to be No. 2 on the Panthers backfield depth chart. 

Foreman was a top-18 fantasy option last year while functioning as the Titans lead back during Derrick Henry’s absence, demonstrating explosiveness and tough running that defined his early career with the Texans. Foreman, still just 26 years old, should be a priority late-round pick for fantasy managers abiding by Zero RB draft strategy or some variant of it. 

Win Total

PointsBet Over/Under: 5.5

McAdoo’s addition to the Panthers and his impact on Darnold (or Corral) has me bullish on taking the over on Carolina’s 5.5 win total. A full season -- or something close to it -- for McCaffrey would go a long way toward an NFL-caliber offense for the Panthers in 2022. A defense that in 2021 proved decent when healthy and when not put in awful situations by a miserable Panthers offense should get the team to a whopping six wins. Rhule may or may not be around to see the final few victories.