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A hardened consensus has emerged anointing Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees as the top three quarterbacks in fantasy. Those of us in the industry may disagree on the order (for the record, mine is Rodgers, Manning, Brees), but nearly everyone has that trio comprising the top tier.
The ranking of the next eight-to-10 quarterbacks, however, is just as unsettled as the top three are etched in stone. Ask 10 trusted fantasy writers for their No. 4 through 12 quarterbacks, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. One of the candidates for the top spot behind the Manning-Rodgers-Brees triumvirate is Cam Newton.
The Panthers signal caller also solicits one of the widest range of opinions of any quarterback. According to FantasyPros, Newton is ranked as highly as fourth and as low as No. 15. Newton is also unique among quarterbacks who could be considered for the No. 4 spot for one primary reason. The Panthers don’t have one receiver ranked inside the top 50 at the position in consensus rankings.
Dating back to the 2009 season, no quarterback has been in the preseason top 10 without a top-50 receiver. Gone is long-time Panther Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell. In are rookie Kelvin Benjamin, and veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. All three are likely to be drafted, but none is expected to become a regular fantasy starter. In fact, Newton’s most relevant pass-catcher is tight end Greg Olsen, who has a great chance to have the best season of his career as the most reliable option in Carolina’s passing game.
The question here, though, is not about Olsen’s fantasy value (more on that in a second). Rather, it is how high should Newton rank, given the dearth of weapons for the Panthers out wide?
Determining where Newton ranks among quarterbacks depends on how efficient he can be as a passer and how effective he can be on the ground. Let’s start with the grim reality concerning the former. While Newton completed a career-best 61.7 percent of his passes last year, he also got a career-low 7.14 yards per attempt. He also completed just 32 passes of 20-plus yards, ranking 21st in the league behind Geno Smith and Chad Henne. While Benjamin brings monster size to the table (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), he lacks the speed necessary to take the top off the defense. Neither Cotchery nor Avant have been known for their game-breaking speed, so this team still lacks a true deep threat.
On the plus side, Newton was very efficient in the red zone last year. He went 28-for-54 with 17 touchdowns, good for a 31.5-percent touchdown rate. Only four quarterbacks with at least 50 red-zone attempts had a better touchdown percentage (Manning, Tony Romo, Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson). A lot of that efficiency was tied up in the Newton-to-Olsen connection. The duo hooked up on nine times in 18 attempts for six scores. Adding a big, physical receiver like Benjamin to the mix should only help Newton in close to the goal line. Cotchery was also very good in the red zone last year, catching nine of his 17 targets for eight touchdowns.
Then there is Newton’s prowess as a runner. Carolina’s lackluster passing game last year did not limit Newton’s production on the ground, as he ran for 585 yards and six touchdowns on 111 attempts. He ran the ball 10 fewer times in the red zone than in 2012, but scored just one less touchdown, converting six of his 20 attempts inside the 20 into end-zone trips. In short, Newton remains one of the most dangerous runners from the quarterback position, and given his size and strength, is nearly impossible to keep out of the end zone once the Panthers get inside the five-yard line.
There is plenty of reason to believe in Newton this year, but it’s hard to get very excited about him with the lack of weapons in the passing game. Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Robert Griffin all rank ahead of him on my board, making him my No. 8 quarterback.
Most overvalued player
DeAngelo Williams, RB – It feels silly to call a running back typically ranked outside the top 30 at the position overvalued, but I can’t see the appeal of Williams this year. Seemingly everything went right for him to have a big season last year. Jonathan Stewart was out for the lion’s share of the season. The Panthers went 12-4, and with their elite defense, they were typically ahead late in games. Despite that great environment for success, he only ran for 843 yards and three touchdowns, ranking No. 21 among running backs in fantasy points. He’s now 31 years old, and must deal with a healthy Stewart. Even at his relatively cheap price, I’m staying away.
Most undervalued player
Greg Olsen, TE – The case for Olsen is mostly laid out in the intro to this column. He’s the best and most reliable pass-catcher in the offense. He’s very good in the red zone and has Newton’s trust. He had a career-high 73 receptions for 816 yards and six touchdowns last season. It would be very surprising if he didn’t duplicate or exceed those numbers in 2014.
QB: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard
RB: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Kenjon Barner, Tyler Gaffney
WR: Jerricho Cotchery, Kelvin Benjamin, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King
TE: Greg Olsen, Mike McNeill, Ed Dickson
The Panthers were a top-flight real-life and fantasy defense last year, trailing only the Chiefs in fantasy points. They had a league-high 60 sacks and were tied for sixth with 30 takeaways. Carolina returns nearly that entire defense, making them once again one of the most attractive fantasy defenses in the league.
In both real life and fantasy, it all starts with Luke Kuechly. The third-year player has averaged 160 tackles and three interceptions per year in his short career. He is considered the top linebacker and a top-five overall defensive player in most IDP circles. Defensive end Greg Hardy leads that pass rush, having racked up 15 sacks last season. On the opposite end, Charles Johnson had 11 sacks last year, which is exactly his average over the last four seasons. Second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, will likely factor into the rotation behind these two standouts. Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn join Kuechly in what is one of the best linebacker corps in the league, and second-year man Star Lotulelei is a space-eating presence in the middle of the line. Of these three, Davis in particular warrants IDP consideration.
The secondary is the weak spot of the defense, but they can get by given the strength of the pass rush and scheme. They have two new starters in cornerback Antoine Cason and free safety Thomas Decoud. You’re drafting this defense because of the front seven, however.
Carolina’s defense ranked sixth by Pro Football Focus’ metrics last season. The unit could be even better this year.