The Carolina Panthers rebounded from their 6-10, everything-went-wrong 2016 season to win 11 games and reach the playoffs in 2017. Unfortunately for the team, their third matchup against division-rival New Orleans proved to be their third loss against them, despite Cam Newton playing exceptionally well and showing off the versatility that made him a top-four quarterback in fantasy for the fourth time in his career.
Newton’s athleticism covers up some serious deficiencies on the team’s roster — and creates a few that a more-accurate pocket passer likely wouldn’t have — and the team’s closeness up again the salary cap could make it difficult for them to fill those holes in free agency. That said, the Panthers could turn a second-tier free agent into an impact fantasy player if they can find one that fills one of their most glaring needs, and the draft could prove to be a source for some cost-effective solutions. Here are some additions that could fit the bill.
Three additions we want to see for fantasy
Dion Lewis, RB: With just under 1,700 career carries, Jonathan Stewart has had less work than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps that means the 31-year-old back will have a more graceful decline than many backs who hit the wall this side of 30. His efficiency numbers have dropped the last few seasons. I suspect that trend has more to do with the decline of the Panthers’ offensive line — which has seen its PFF run-blocking grade erode over the last two seasons — than it does with the decline of Stewart’s skills, but that doesn’t change the fact that Stewart is no longer an effective runner for the team. I think the Panthers would be best served to replace him with either a better pile pusher or someone with the foot speed to turn the corner. Lewis can do both. He may be undersized, but his 3.0 yards after contact per attempt was top-10 in football this season, and the team’s reliance on Newton would shelter Lewis from the big shots the backs who receive goal line work have to take. More importantly, Lewis’s versatility would keep defenses from loading the box to stop the run.
Paul Richardson, WR: Newton likes to throw the ball down the field. In 2015 and 2016, Ted Ginn and Greg Olsen saw a combined 79 targets thrown 20 or more yards in the air, and they caught more than a third of them and scored 12 touchdowns. But with Ginn in New Orleans and Olsen out most of the 2017 season with a broken foot, Newton was suddenly without a viable deep threat. Olsen’s presumed healthy return in 2018 should help, but the team still needs to add a vertical threat if only to stretch defenses and help their running game. Richardson would be an ideal fit from a fantasy perspective. He caught 8 of his 20 deep targets last season and scored 3 times.
Early-round offensive linemen: Matt Kalil’s ill-fated five-year contract with $31 million guaranteed will make it really difficult for an already poor run-blocking offensive line to improve. It will likely cost the Panthers their best blocker, left guard Andrew Norwell, who is now a free agent. And five-time Pro Bowl center and Matt’s brother Ryan Kalil has already announced he plans to retire after the 2018 season. For any chance to add impact talent on the line, the team will almost certainly need to rely on the draft. And they will need to have success with that approach for Newton to maintain his dynasty value and for whatever back they have run between the tackles to reach flex consideration.