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The Carolina Panthers are an odd mix for fake football, though mostly a good mix. There’s the mobile quarterback who’s sometimes also a goal-line running back, the receiver who won’t age ever, and the 800-yard tight end who can be snatched in the 10th round and beyond. Then there’s the backfield…

The Housekeeping

Notable Additions: Ted Ginn and Domenick Hixon

Notable Draft Picks: All defense all the time early, though sixth-round pick Kenjon Barner could steal a carry or three in a still clustered backfield.

The Marquee Men (the elitest of the elite)

Cam Newton (ADP: 45.6): While those who live in the land of reality (a foreign place I don’t like to acknowledge often) were busy giving many craps about how Newton wears his sideline towel last year, and why he isn’t RAGING WITH HOT FIRE after every loss, the angst for the citizens of fantasy land was pretty much isolated to two games.

Oh, there were other games when Newton’s fantasy production dipped and spiked downwards. But his two true duds came in weeks three and five, the only weeks when his fantasy point total sunk into the single digits. And one of those weeks (the latter) came against the Seahawks, and their defense that ranked sixth against the pass. Hey, horrible weeks happen to even the best. Remember that time Drew Brees threw five picks in a game (Week 13 last year)? Yep.

I’m rehashing this to remind you that patience is key, young Jedi, especially when you’re dealing with a quarterback who gets a significant chunk of his fantasy production on the ground. No one’s doubting the cannon that rests on Newton’s shoulders, though he could benefit from some better decisions to even out that TD:INT ratio a little more (a good but less than great 19:12 overall last year, but from Week 9 on it improved nicely to 14:4). But even with his far above average 8.0 passing yards per attempt, and more impressively, four games when that number was at or above 9.0, much of Newton’s fantasy self-worth comes through running quickly in a forward direction.

He topped his rookie rushing yardage, finishing with 741 yards (in 2011, he had 706 yards) at a pace of 5.7 per carry. Combine that with his seven rushing touchdowns, and 123.1 of Newton’s 315 fantasy points came on the ground. That’s 39 percent of his total production, which is worrisome because quarterback rushing is a volatile area in our fantasy game that’s based on week-to-week results.

Sure, Newton averaged 46.3 rushing yards per game last year. But on the extreme low end of that are his four games with less than 10 yards. That’s far too much of the schedule during a fantasy season that’s 13 games long. It gets worse when we recall that since the Panthers mixed in Mike Tolbert as a goal-line option — thereby taking that title away from Newton exclusively — the sophomore’s rushing touchdowns dropped from 14 to eight, a difference of 35 fantasy points.

Although the investment you’re making in Newton generally isn’t quite as steep as the price paid to land Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, Newton is yet another example of why waiting for a quarterback is the preferred alternative.

Steve Smith (ADP: 67.7): I’m becoming convinced that Steve Smith will actually live forever. He will not fade or decay like other mere mortal beings. No, he pities the thought of such a simple life outcome. He’s above that.

Generally, when a receiver begins to slug through their early 30′s and inch towards the age of 35, we can see a gradual decline. Or sometimes, an abrupt decline (hi there, Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco/Johnson). Two years ago, we thought that was happening with Smith when he posted only 554 receiving yards over a 14-game season. Turns out he probably just needed some level of competence at quarterback, as since that dreadful 2010 he’s been rejuvenated by Newton, recording 2,568 receiving yards, with his yards per catch rising from 12.0 to 16.9.

So very much the opposite of a slow down has happened recently with Newton aboard despite Smith’s age, making him a great buy at the above ADP. Over the past two years only Calvin Johnson has more +20 yard catches, according to Rotoworld.

The Middle Men (middle-to-late round options)

DeAngelo Williams (ADP: 79.7): Jonathan Stewart still hasn’t stopped breaking, and he still hasn’t started practicing. So by default, Williams could become the featured back on an offense that does a fair amount of running (ranked 11th last year with 462 attempts, though 127 of those were by Newton). Or at least he’ll be as feature-ish as it gets in Carolina, with Newton/Mike Tolbert consistently vulturing goal-line touches.

Getting any running back who’s receiving the bulk of the workload around 80th overall is a sweet buy, even if your intention with Williams is only to deploy him as your RB3. But be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

If we view Tolbert as only a goal-line/short-yardage back, then last year the split in Carolina’s backfield was truly between only Stewart and Williams when they were both healthy. Even though he was restricted by that setup, Williams still had ample opportunities, especially when Stewart missed seven games. Yet despite receiving 173 carries, Williams only had two games with more than 60 rushing yards. Worse, of his 737 overall yards, 210 of them came in one week against the Saints, and the league’s worst rush defense that gave up 147.6 yards per game.

Tread lightly.

Greg Olsen (ADP: 104.6): A year ago we were talking about Greg Olsen as the next tight end to reach the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time after he was released from the shackles of a tandem with Jeremy Shockey. He didn’t quite get there, but he was damn close.

Olsen finished with 843 receiving yards, easily a career high (previous high was 612), and he raised his per game average by 18.9 yards. Unfortunately, his fantasy value is limited by how often the Panthers pound it in the red zone with either Newton or Tolbert.

Much of a top tier tight end’s fantasy value is tied to touchdowns. Example: it’s wicked and great that Rob Gronkowski had 790 yards last year despite missing five games, but remember that he still scored 11 times. Ditto for Jimmy Graham, who tossed nine touchdowns in with his 982 yards, scoring once every 9.4 catches. Olsen scores at a much more moderate pace, with 10 over his two years in Carolina.

Still, if you’re planning to wait on your tight end and not chase after, say, Vernon Davis and overpay early, Olsen belongs atop your list of quality late-round value plays.

The Menial Peons (sleepers, flex plays, and matchup plays)

Brandon LaFell (ADP: 159.7): Every late spring and summer, fantasy folk identify their best sleeper candidates. And every late fall and early winter, many of those same names are bitterly disappointing jerks. This is the cycle of our world.

LaFell was the bust-out bro last year, and everything was in place. He’d have Smith to draw attention on the other side, and strong tight end play by Olsen doing the same underneath. Lafell was also entering his third season, a time when wide receivers either bust out, or wither and die. He sort of chose the latter.

LaFell’s third season was only a slight improvement over year two, as he finished with 677 receiving yards. What makes that already average number worse is that in an offense where Olsen and Smith easily get the most targets, LaFell was able to get 20 more looks than in 2011 (from 56 to 76) despite missing two games. Yet still, his improvement was negligible.

LaFell remains on this list and others because he’s still the Panthers’ No. 2 wideout, a position that in theory should produce at least flex or matchup play value because of Smith’s presence. However, if he continues to find little separation, LaFell will lose his job to either Ted Ginn, Domenick Hixon, Armanti Edwards, or David Gettis.

Jonathan Stewart (ADP: 120.6): He’ll likely be ready for the season, though he’s maintained this ADP based only on that assumption. When healthy, Stewart is the better running back, with size to match his lesser but still above average speed. It’s difficult to remember now, but over his first two seasons Stewart had 2,155 total yards, with 21 touchdowns. He’s also only a year removed from taking a notable step as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 47 passes for 413 yards.

But if his ankle is too wonky for a golf tournament, football isn’t easier. And every day Williams spends as the lead back is another that makes it difficult for Stewart to have a meaningful fantasy role when he returns.

Mike Tolbert (ADP: undrafted): Say, do you like touchdowns? Welp, then Mike Tolbert is the deep league flex dice roll for you. He scored seven times last year on only 54 carries, just forget about the fact that three of those came in one game against the league’s worst run defense. Tolbert has a history of volume scoring, though, with a touchdown once every 13.7 carries over his last three seasons.

The Mop-Up Men (deeeep sleepers and handcuffs)

Kenjon Barner (ADP: undrafted): The sixth-round pick holds at least a sprinkling of handcuff value given the uncertainty around Stewart.