The Carolina Panthers 2020 Fantasy Outlook

After making a splash by bringing in both Teddy Bridgewater and Robby Anderson during free agency, the Panthers have an offense that few teams can match in terms of offensive weapons. However, they also play in what could be the hardest division in the NFC South. For fantasy football, this is a rare mix that could produce fantasy gold.

Coming off the heels of an NFC South worst 5-11, we knew going into the offseason there would be widespread changes for the Carolina Panthers heading into 2020. Coaches would be replaced, and new players brought in as they attempt to rebuild the culture they once had that took the franchise to Super Bowl 50 just four years ago. The beauty for us in the fantasy realm, is we do not need a team to be good to find productive assets for our teams. Christain McCaffrey and his historic 2019 season is the perfect example of this. As the NFL Draft approaches, we need to take a more in-depth look and see how the moves the Panthers have made thus far will affect their outlook for fantasy football in 2020. 

Large Defensive Questions

I know you are seeing defense being brought up and wondering why but believe me, I have a point I am going to make so bear with me.

Before we look at who they brought in, we need to see who is now gone. Nowhere is this more evident than on the defense, which already was one of the worst in the NFL. First, there is the gaping hole that now sits at the linebacker position after the shocking retirement of All-Pro Luke Kuechly. At only 28 years old, Kuechly put his long term health at the forefront of this decision, which has to be admired.

However, Kuechly isn’t the only departure from this already porous defense. During free agency, the Panthers moved on from CB James Bradberry, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Dontari Poe, and S Eric Reid. While the Panthers do currently have the seventh overall selection in the NFL Draft, one pick will not be enough to turn this around. However, PFN’s Chief Draft Analyst and Insider Tony Pauline did have the Panthers selecting DT Derrick Brown (Auburn) in his latest mock draft along with PFN’s Senior Draft Analyst Andrew DiCecco.

Let’s take a quick look around the NFC South at who the Panthers will have to face six times this year. Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints who have RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas. The Atlanta Falcons with QB Matt Ryan, WRs Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley, along with newly acquired RB Todd Gurley.

Then there is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who just signed arguably the greatest quarterback ever to pick up a football in Tom Brady who gets to throw to both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. That defense is not going to be stopping those teams. Add in the games against the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, and defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. You have a team that will be playing from behind in a minimum of 10 of their 16 games. 

So why did I bring up the defensive players and the schedule when talking fantasy (unless you are in an IDP league, of course)? Because we could be looking at a team with an up-tempo offense with an explosive mix of playmakers that will be in garbage-time situations by the middle of the third quarter in 62.5% of their games. The Panthers defense was eighth-worst in DVOA last year and should now be in the bottom five for 2020. Playing from behind consistently will create more fantasy opportunities that we can exploit to our benefit. 

New Coaching staff

Gone is Ron Rivera and in steps Matt Rhule to help right the ship. In January, the Panthers stepped up and gave one of the hottest coaching names in college football the reigns of their franchise to the tune of seven years, $60 million. 

Rhule has a reputation for turning programs around. In his third season at Temple, the Owls went 10-2 during the regular season. A year later, he led the program to its first conference championship since 1967. After his success at Temple, Baylor University came calling.

In what can only be described as one of the most undesirable jobs in college football, Rhule embraced the challenge and helped bring back the program from the brink of the death penalty to a Big 12 Championship game appearance in three short years. Rhule brings with him an up-tempo offense that loves to get the ball moving quickly and would need an offensive coordinator who shared the same philosophy; In steps former LSU passing coordinator Joe Brady who became the league’s youngest active offensive coordinator.

While the collective NFL world fawns over Joe Burrow and his on-field accomplishments, Joe Brady was the orchestrator of the vaunted LSU Tiger offense. Brady’s philosophy in the spread offense should mix well with that of Rhule, who believes in adapting to the strengths of his players more than forcing players to adapt to what he wants. Given this is one of the most talented skill-position groups in the NFL, getting playmakers in space should not be a difficult task, but it will be rewarding for fantasy.

Panthers bring in Teddy Bridgewater in free agency

Let’s start with the most significant move the Panthers made in free agency. The Panthers and QB Teddy Bridgewater agreed on a three-year, $63 million deal with $33 million guaranteed. Safe to say they put their money where their mouth is. 

Bridgewater is coming off a 2019 campaign where he was a stable asset for both fantasy and the NFL. He did nothing to wow you but also didn’t lose you any games in the process. In his nine games played last year (five starting for the injured Drew Brees), Bridgewater completed 133 of 196 attempts (67.9%) for 1,384 yards, nine touchdowns, and only two interceptions. When using PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), which looks at what a player is directly responsible for rather than players around him, Bridgewater scored an average 18.92—ranking him QB34 for 2019. 

This score is reflected when you see that Bridgewater had the lowest in intended air yards (6.2) of all qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL last season, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He was more than willing to take the dump-off option rather than push the ball down the field. Now, that is not to say that Teddy can’t do it. We have seen several times where he has opened up and taken deep shots, and I am positive that both Rhule and Brady will want to utilize the speed they have at wide receiver on deeper routes. 

Take what he and Michael Thomas did last year as an example. In the Week 2 game where Bridgewater came in and his subsequent five starts, Thomas caught 52 of his 65 targets (80%) for 640 yards and three touchdowns. Those five and a half games put Thomas on a 173 catch pace for 16 games. He finished the season with 185 catches. Also, his 9.85 yards per target was slightly higher under Bridgewater as he dipped slightly to 9.25 outside of those games.  

For fantasy, I don’t want to rely on Bridgewater as my primary starting option in a 1QB league. In a Superflex or 2QB league, that changes as I don’t might getting one of the guys who would typically be in the QB12-QB17 range to fill that spot for me. With all of the quarterbacks that moved around this year, Bridgewater came into one of the better situations. He has a coach who wants to be up-tempo, three dynamic wide receivers, and the best all-around running back we have seen in a very long time. He is set up for fantasy success, even if the Panthers as a team are not. 

Robby Anderson joins a stacked wide receiver group

Very few teams in the NFL can put up a legitimate argument for possessing a better wide receiver group than the Carolina Panthers. Not only do they have fantasy darling D.J. Moore and perpetual breakout-candidate Curtis Samuel, but they went and got the best wide receiver who was on the open market in former New York Jet Robby Anderson. I am sure familiarity played a role in the two-year, $20 million acquisition as Anderson played for Matt Rhule in college at Temple. 

Anderson has long been a player in the fantasy community who has underwhelmed when looking at the talent he has. The 6’3″ frame and legit burner speed at 4.41 when he tested should have led to more on-field results than we have seen. There is no doubt that part of it comes down to playing for the Jets and especially for Adam Gase last year. But even the quarterback play was awful for Anderson. Per Warren Sharp of SharpFootballStats, of 28 receivers with at least 20 targets of 20-plus air yards, Anderson had the sixth-lowest rate of catchable balls. 

In four years with the Jets, Anderson showed track speed, able to blast by defensive backs with ease. However, he only went over the 800-yard mark one time. If Darnold wouldn’t have missed three games due to mono, I believe Anderson would have done it again last year. He ended 2019 with 52 catches on 96 targets for 779 yards and five touchdowns.

If there was ever a time for Anderson to “prove it” in fantasy, the time is now. Rhule and Brady are going to get creative and place him all around the field, but I expect to see him spaced out wide and mainly with Samuel running most of the slot routes. I was buying Anderson before free agency, banking on him landing with a better situation. While others see this as a “too many mouths to feed” situation, I will take the value if I can get him as he has WR2 upside any given week.

How are the returning players impacted for fantasy?

I will start with the easy one in Christian McCaffrey. He is the 1.01 in all 1QB drafts and even in some Superflex leagues too if you choose to take him over Patrick Mahomes. I will get this out of the way now, yes, he will regress. You don’t duplicate a season like McCaffrey had where he ran for nearly 1,400 yards and had just over 1,000 receiving yards. He was their only offense all season and also the only player that QB Kyle Allen could consistently hit. With better quarterback play comes more opportunities for other guys to see touches, and they have to come from somewhere. While I still believe McCaffrey will be the workhorse and rarely see the sidelines, there will be an inevitable drop in his numbers. 

On the plus side, Teddy Bridgewater does like to hit his running backs when given the opportunity. In the five games that Teddy Bridgewater started for the Saints in 2019, 39 balls were caught by Saints running backs. That averages out to 124.8 receptions over 16 games. Even if there is a slight drop in targets, it is not enough to drop him behind Saquon Barkley in my 2020 rankings.

As for both D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, the community seems a bit split on the impact both Bridgewater and Anderson will have on the duo, more so the latter. Teddy is an improvement over Kyle Allen without any question, and no one could be happier about that than Curtis Samuel. Samuel had a productive year in 2019, catching 54 of his 106 targets (50.9%) for 627 yards and six touchdowns. But when you go back and watch the film from last year, it is sickening how many times Samuel had beat his defender, and a massive play or a touchdown was missed due to a poor throw. 

Last year could have and should have been the breakout year we thought it was going to be for Samuel. After the Anderson signing, the popular narrative was that it was a downgrade for Samuel. For me, this is a buying opportunity. If you can find an owner who is down on him and is willing to let him go, make an offer and get him on your team. There is no way that Samuel only catches 50% of his targets in 2020.

All he needs is a chance, and I believe he will get it this year thanks in part to the multiple formations that Joe Brady likes to utilize. Even just in the slot, which will be his primary role, Samuel is going to see most teams’ CB3 and become an instant matchup problem. Add in the fact the team will be playing from behind in most of their games and needing to air it out; I believe Samuel is in a great spot for 2020.

Leaving the best for last, D.J. Moore in 2020 will cement his name in the WR1 category for fantasy football. Even with the previously mentioned terrible quarterback play last year, Moore was still spectacular. He hauled in 87 of his 135 targets (64.4%) for 1,175 yards and four touchdowns. Moore went over 75 yards receiving in 10 of his 15 games last year while seeing coverage rolled to his side of the field most of the time. You will be hard-pressed to find a player whose fantasy stock has risen more since the beginning of last year than Moore. 

Moore went from WR36 his rookie year to WR16 in PPR by the end of 2019. Age is another box that you can check for Moore as he will only be 23 for the entire 2020 season. Coming off a season where he became the 17th player to reach 1,100 receiving yards in a single season before his 23rd birthday, I expect his stock to continue to rise. Don’t be surprised if he ends the season inside the top-five of fantasy wide receivers for fantasy football. 

One more player who is worth mentioning as a sleeper is TE Ian Thomas. With Greg Olsen now a Seattle Seahawk, Thomas is the line for the bulk of the tight end work for 2020. He is an excellent athlete at 6’3″ and 259 lbs. Thomas ran a 4.74 40-yard dash and showed off his vertical, measuring at 36 inches and will be just 24 years old for the entire 2020 season.

While he does need to work on drops and his blocking, that will come in time, and he could serve as a useful redzone threat for the Panthers. Keep an eye out for him later on in your dynasty drafts as finding a tight end in the later rounds can be challenging, given the overall positions lack of depth.

Tommy Garrett is a writer for PFN covering Fantasy Football. You can follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

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