Fantasy Football: Is it safe to trust Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Kelvin Benjamin this year?

PHOENIX -- The Panthers have three high-profile Fantasy options in Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Kelvin Benjamin, but all three will be hard to trust this season. At least as starters in the majority of leagues.

It might be easy to avoid Stewart and Benjamin as featured players in your lineup, but Newton is generally considered one of the best Fantasy quarterbacks over the past few seasons, including a No. 1 finish in his MVP campaign in 2015. But that now seems like a long time ago.

Newton finished as the No. 19 Fantasy quarterback last year, and coach Ron Rivera said at the NFL’s annual meeting that it was a difficult season for Newton to endure.

“He’s going to have to rebuild his confidence. He was shook,” Rivera said. “The young man went through a tough time, and we went through a tough time.”

That tough time carried over to the offseason when Newton was forced to undergo surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, which was the result of an injury first suffered in Week 14. He is now questionable for the start of training camp.

Cam Newton QB / Carolina (2016 stats)
CMP %: 52.9 YDS: 3,509 TD: 19 INT: 14 RUSH YDS: 359 RUSH TD: 5

Newton also lost one of his top targets in receiver Ted Ginn, who signed as a free agent with New Orleans. The offensive line remains an issue even with the addition of free agent left tackle Matt Kalil, who joins his brother, Ryan, but Newton was still sacked 36 times in 2016 and hit another 10 times as he threw.

And, worst of all, Rivera has said he wants Newton to run less, which takes away arguably his best Fantasy asset. He passed for 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season and ran for 359 yards with five touchdowns. And he might not get much better than that this season because Rivera wants Newton to rely more on his teammates.

“For the last six seasons, Cam has shouldered so much of that responsibility,” Rivera said. “We’re in a position now where he’s more of a veteran quarterback, has matured more. We have to be cognizant of that when it comes to what we’re going to do on the offensive side of the ball. What we want to do offensively is put the onus on the positions as opposed to just the quarterback.”

A bad shoulder, fewer weapons and becoming more reliant on other people doesn’t exactly enhance Newton’s Fantasy value. It makes him more of a No. 2 Fantasy quarterback and someone to target with a mid- to late-round pick.

One player Newton might be forced to lean on is Stewart. Or it could be another running back since the Panthers might target a rookie at No. 8 overall in the NFL Draft, with LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Florida State’s Dalvin Cook as potential options.

Jonathan Stewart RB / Carolina (2016 stats)
ATT: 218 YDS: 824 TD: 9 YPC: 3.8 REC: 8 REC YDS: 60

Rivera didn’t rule out drafting a running back in the first round.

“When it comes down to it, we have to take a look at who that best available is, and how does that impact our positions,” he said.

Obviously, if the Panthers draft a running back then Stewart’s Fantasy value will take a significant hit. And he’s already someone who is trending in the wrong direction.

While he was the No. 22 Fantasy running back last year in standard leagues with 218 carries for 824 yards (3.78-yards per carry) and nine touchdowns and eight catches for 60 yards, he is 30 this year. And he continues to deal with injuries, including three missed games last season with a hamstring problem.

Despite all of that, Rivera remains confident in Stewart heading into this season. And one positive for Stewart was he ranked No. 8 among running backs with at least 200 carries in yards after contact at 2.7.

“Jonathan is a physical player, but at the same time, there’s been stints where Jonathan hasn’t played a lot,” Rivera said. “The thing we do like is when we look at his numbers, his numbers have been very steady between 850 and 950 yards a season. Somewhere along the line he misses a couple of games. You feel pretty confident that if we can keep him healthy, for the most part, he can continue to be a productive back for us.”

If Stewart remains the starter following the NFL Draft then he’s best viewed as a low-end No. 2 Fantasy running back that you would settle for instead of target. He’s only worth drafting in Round 6 or later in the majority of leagues, with his value lower in PPR formats with 24 total catches over the past two seasons. Like Rivera said, he’ll be a candidate for at least 850 yards and seven touchdowns, but his upside is limited.

Kelvin Benjamin WR / Carolina (2016 stats)
TAR: 118 REC: 63 YDS: 941 TD: 7

Benjamin’s upside might not be limited, but he needs to play better than he did in 2016, even though he was the No. 18 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues with 63 catches for 941 yards and seven touchdowns on 118 targets.

He only had five games with double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league, although two of those outings came in the final two weeks of the season. Rivera expects Benjamin to improve this season now that he’ll be two years removed from his torn ACL, which he suffered in training camp in 2015.

“That was tough because he had such a good rookie year,” Rivera said of Benjamin, who had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. “We wanted to compare him to what he did in his rookie year. I think we got carried away with ourselves early in the year with him. That slowed him down, his return. We have to be aware of those things, and we have to be smart about those things. We’re pretty excited about him.”

Benjamin could see a potential uptick in targets with Ginn gone, but he also has to be more consistent. Part of that is on Newton, but Benjamin also has to step up his game.

He’s best viewed as a low-end No. 2 Fantasy receiver, and he’s only worth drafting in Round 5 in the majority of leagues. But the more he falls on Draft Day in your league, the better off you’ll be because Benjamin is still just 26. And this is really his third season in the NFL since he missed his second year with the ACL injury, so hopefully he can still have a breakout campaign.

Greg Olsen is also a solid Fantasy option for the Panthers, and he’s locked in as a No. 1 tight end in all leagues, even with Newton coming off shoulder surgery. Olsen is worth drafting in Round 5 in most formats.

But we still need to evaluate Newton, Stewart and Benjamin heading into training camp. For Newton, and by extension Benjamin, it will be all about the health of Carolina’s quarterback. And Stewart could take a hit with his Fantasy value in the NFL Draft.

We hope all three are once again standout Fantasy options this year. But you might not target this trio on Draft Day and instead wait to see where they fall -- and if they make sense for your Fantasy team.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Jamey Eisenberg has been a Senior Fantasy Writer for CBS Sports since 2006 with a focus on Fantasy Football. A University of Florida grad (class of '98), Jamey got his start in the newspaper business and... Full Bio

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