With the promotion of quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator, the Carolina Panthers' offense will look to build on the momentum that they ended with at the end of the 2012 season.
Coach Ron Rivera has already stated that one of the changes that will be made is simplifying the play calls. The hope is that this will allow the offense to run quicker and smarter.
While the Shula/Cam led offense will have many of the same weapons as last year, the running game will have to be more consistent if the Panthers are going to make some noise in a run towards the postseason.
So let’s take a look at the Carolina backfield and see what the possibilities are and more importantly, who you should take in your upcoming fantasy draft.
DeAngelo Williams: As far as your draft goes, things became a little clearer over the past few weeks with Jonathan Stewart designated to the PUP list. More on him later.
For the time being this means that Williams is the most likely the starting RB. The former Memphis standout totaled 737 yards on 173 carries last season for 7 touchdowns (2 passing). And while those numbers aren’t anything to get excited over, the Stewart injury could make Williams a steal later on in your draft, at least for the first few games of the season.
While still a tough, hard-nosed player, Williams is the finesse RB on the team, in previous years known as the “Lightning”. Even though it seems like forever since his 1,500-yard, 18 TD season in 2008, Williams has still shown the ability to make plays and to make players miss.
Pay attention to how his training camp goes. Right now he’s not an RB1 for a fantasy team and I don’t feel comfortable making him my RB2 just yet, but if Stewart spends an extended amount of time on the PUP list then Williams is going to get more than his share of carries and this offense is making a point of operating at a faster pace which could mean even more carries for him.
If nothing else, take a chance on him near the middle of your draft if he’s available and give it a few games to see how the Panthers game plan is working out.
Jonathan Stewart: With the restructuring of Williams deal earlier in the offseason, many felt this meant Stewart was getting a bump in carries and playing time. Scratch that idea. With the recent news of Stewart being assigned to the PUP list, he obviously won’t be suiting up anytime soon.
The Panthers have until August 31st to take him off of the PUP list. After that time he will be required to sit out the first six weeks of the season if he hasn’t been removed from the list. A healthy Stewart is still the “Thunder” of the Panthers' backfield.
Listed at 5’10”, 235 pounds, Stewart is capable of busting through a defensive line when the Panthers need a few yards. But he’s also capable of running over or around the next few players to come after him after he gets through the line and taking it to the end zone.
Unfortunately the injury is just too much of a concern to consider taking Stewart in your draft. Even if he makes a miraculous comeback and is ready to go at the beginning of the season, you can bet the Panthers will be cautious in his return.
If you feel like you just have to take him, wait until the end of your draft and pick him up. Don’t worry, he’ll be there. No one else is going to take that chance.
Mike Tolbert: Enter “Thunder 2”. What seemed to be a head scratcher for most when Tolbert was added in 2012, turned out to be a pretty good idea.
Make sure you understand that from week to week Tolbert is an all or nothing player. He will either get you touchdowns or nothing.
That’s how the Panthers used him last season and it worked well. On 54 carries he rushed for 183 yards.
That doesn’t sound like much, but he scored 7 touchdowns on those possessions.
If the Panthers plan on using him in the same way, and I imagine they will, then Tolbert is a huge gamble.
In 12 players or more leagues you might want to consider him, but in lesser player leagues there are more consistent options at RB.
Kenjon Barner: 1,757 yards, 21 TDs, 6.4 YPC. Those are the stats that this guy put up in his senior year at Oregon. This kid is fast. Like 4.34 fast. That’s the time that he ran the 40-yard dash at Oregon’s pro day.
But why would the Panther’s take ANOTHER running back in their draft when they had so many other needs? I think they did it because they felt that Barner could eventually take DeAngelo Williams spot on the roster if they ever traded him and never miss a beat.
It’s already documented that Barner wasn’t very happy that he didn’t get picked until the sixth round and that he feels like he has something to prove not only to the Panthers, but to the rest of the league. And he may just get his chance sooner than later.
Not only will Jonathan Stewart’s injury bump up Barner’s playing time, but he has also been practicing with the kick return team.
If your league is one that counts kickoff stats for your position players then you will want to pay attention to Barner’s progress throughout training camp. I think Barner gets taken in most drafts before Tolbert does. As with Tolbert, Barner is a more likely option if you’re in a 12+ player league, but don’t fall asleep on him even if you’re playing in a league with less than 12 players.
He could be the guy that you pick up at the end that makes you look like you actually knew what you were doing when you drafted him.
There is no doubt that the Panthers have plenty of talent in the backfield. Not only that, they seem to have a game plan that will start with the running backs, which has them all excited. But none of that matters if Cam and company can’t get the passing game going and if the offensive line can’t give the backfield the proper blocking and enough space to run through.
Injuries heavily impacted the offensive line last year, but those players are back and looking to stay healthy. And that will be the key to the backfield. If the offensive line can stay healthy, then the Panthers are going to score some points both on the ground and in the air and you should definitely draft someone from the four players above.
And as a side note, don't worry about Cam Newton stealing away too many yards or TDs from his backfield. Yes, he's going to do what he does and he's going to get his yards and touchdowns, which the Panthers need him to do.
But Shula is placing more of an emphasis on him working out of the pocket meaning that the running backs are going to be doing the running.
Considering the current status of each player I would consider DeAngelo Williams in the middle of your draft and then Kenjon Barner in the deeper part of your draft. I’m not comfortable with Stewart’s injury right now and I think Tolbert is too much of a risk to play every week, although if you can guess correctly and start him on the weeks that he scores he’s definitely worth it.
But if you can do that then you’ve probably already won your fantasy league.