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Offseason Primers: Carolina Panthers

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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Ron Rivera's first season as head coach in Carolina resulted in a 6-10 record, but there was plenty of optimism about a playoff run, in part because of the play of Cam Newton.

Instead, the team floundered early in Rivera's second season and finished with a 7-9 record, in part because of the play of Newton. Year 3 of the Rivera era could be the last in Carolina if the team doesn't post a winning record -- and you-know-who will be a huge factor.

2012 Touches Leaders
746 total touches (rush attempts + receptions)
DeAngelo Williams 186 (173 car., 13 rec.) 24.9%
Cam Newton 127 car. 17.0%
Jonathan Stewart 110 (93 car., 17 rec.) 14.8%
Mike Tolbert 81 (54 car., 27 rec.) 10.9%
Steve Smith 76 (73 rec., 3 car.) 10.2%
Greg Olsen 69 rec. 9.2%
Brandon LaFell 47 (44 rec., 3 car.) 6.3%
All Others 50 6.7%

The good news for Newton is that his play dramatically improved in the second half of the season, thanks to some tweaks in his game and a favorable schedule. He went from averaging a lousy 17.0 Fantasy points per game in his first seven games to 25.3 per game in his last nine. And for as big a deal as the Panthers' zone-read scheme was, he only scored on six such plays total (compared to 21 in a more standard formation). With many analysts believing defenses will have an answer for the zone-read in 2013, this should be viewed as good news.

And for the first time since his high school days, Newton will be in the same offensive scheme for the third straight year, albeit with a new play caller. Mike Shula replaces Rob Chudzinski as the Panthers offensive coordinator and he's expected to keep most if not all of Chudzinski's offense in place. While there might not be as much creativity as 'Chud' was able to infuse, it keeps Newton comfortable and confident, which is important as he continues to develop.

Newton already will enter 2013 with momentum from last year, but if the Panthers provide him with a good offensive line, he'll have the chance at some monster numbers. And the better he does, the better the Panthers will do. Newton could turn out to be a gem of a pick if he falls to the third round as many expect him to in Fantasy drafts.

DeAngelo Williams -- Offseason sleeper

2012 Target Leaders
490 pass attempts
Steve Smith 138 28.2%
Greg Olsen 104 21.2%
Brandon LaFell 76 15.5%
Louis Murphy 60 12.2%
Mike Tolbert 39 8.0%
Jonathan Stewart 23 4.7%
DeAngelo Williams 20 4.1%
All Others 30 6.1%

Let's be honest: No one's looking for Williams on Draft Day based on how he's done the last two years. He'll be on the wrong side of 30 when the season starts, his rushing average dipped on more carries in 2012 and it would have been practically a full yard lower than the 4.3 average he finished with if not for a 210-yard effort in a meaningless game at New Orleans in Week 17. But before you completely turn your back on Williams, know this: His usage has been a sizable factor in his production as he's failed to post big numbers in part because of a lack of opportunities. Here's proof: Williams has posted 10-plus Fantasy points in half of the 14 games with at least 12 carries he's had over the past three seasons. Make the magic number 13 carries and he's even more efficient, delivering 10-plus Fantasy points in 70 percent of his games. Now there are some fluky stats to help that number up (back-to-back games with 40-plus-yard touchdown receptions last year, for example), but he does not look slow nor does he display any significant decline in ability. If he gets the chance to escape Carolina and play with some consistency in an offense that doesn't let the quarterback hog goal-line work, there's potential for a 1,000-total-yard, eight-touchdown season.

Jonathan Stewart -- Sleeper

Expected 2013 Draft Averages
Cam Newton 20-30 overall
Steve Smith 65-75 overall
Jonathan Stewart 65-75 overall
DeAngelo Williams 75-90 overall
Greg Olsen 90-100 overall
Brandon LaFell Late-round pick
Mike Tolbert Late-round pick
Panthers DST Undrafted
Scenario A has the Panthers keeping DeAngelo Williams, muddying up what would otherwise be a delightful running back situation. Scenario B: The aforementioned delightful running back situation, where Williams is somewhere else and Stewart gets a decent amount of work every week. With a restructured contract in hand (proof the team wants him) and just 93 carries from a season ago, the 26-year-old stands to work as the primary rushing force in the Carolina offense. He was on his way there last year, getting 10-plus carries in six of nine games before hurting his ankle and ultimately having surgery. That's the same amount of 10-carry games he had in 2011, a sign the Panthers tried to lean on him more. There are obvious injury concerns with Stew but he's been a proven 1,000-total-yard guy in the past. The only catch would be touchdown production since he'd almost certainly lose out on goal-line work with Newton and Mike Tolbert in the fold. If Williams is out, Stewart should be in play as a 1,200-total-yard back, easily making him a worthy No. 3 running back.

Mike Tolbert -- Late-round flier

Aside from avoiding the Panthers running backs altogether, perhaps the best idea is to stick Tolbert on the back of your roster with a late pick. His first year in Carolina was gross -- only 54 carries, 27 receptions, 451 total yards and five of his seven touchdowns coming in the final three weeks of the season. But Tolbert split reps with two backs while seeing plenty of playing time as a fullback and a running back. If the Panthers send DeAngelo Williams packing, that should give Tolbert more touches. Throw in Jonathan Stewart's constant ankle and foot problems and one might envision Tolbert working as the full-time back at some point in 2012. At worst, an owner burns a late pick on Tolbert and dumps him after a couple of weeks. At best, Tolbert falls into a 15-touch role on a weekly basis. The risk in taking Tolbert late is low.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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