2023 Carolina Panthers Fantasy Preview
2022 Stats (rank)
Points per game: 20.4 (20th)
Total yards per game: 306.2 (29th)
Plays per game: 57.4 (32nd)
Pass Attempts + Sacks per game: 29 (30th)
Dropback EPA per play: -0.06 (26th)
Rush attempts per game: 28.4 (12th)
Rush EPA per play: 0 (6th)
Panthers GM Scott Fitterer sent head coach Matt Rhule back to the college ranks after giving him two seasons plus five at the helm. Rhule left with an 11-27 record that was marred by bafflingly poor quarterback play. Though the quarterbacks he worked with didn’t give him much room for error, Rhule struggled to make anything of the many different quarterbacks he tried out. His replacement, Frank Reich, fared far better in a similar situation with the Colts...until he didn’t.
Heading into 2022, Reich had coached Indianapolis to four winning campaigns including seasons with Carson Wentz and what remained of Philip Rivers a year before retirement. The Colts’ final foray into retread quarterback territory is ultimately what did Reich in. He had no answers for the Matt Ryan problem that was put on his plate and eventually benched Ryan for Sam Ehlinger. The quarterback debacle cost Reich his job nine weeks into the season.
Before his firing, Reich showed a remarkable ability to tailor his offense to its quarterback. In his first season in Indy, his only with Andrew Luck, the Colts logged a four percent pass rate over expected and the fourth-fastest pace in neutral situations. Then, as his quarterback talent dwindled post-Luck, he hid the passing game behind a negative pass rate over expected and a pace that ranked no higher than 25th in the league for the next three seasons. Reich did his best to adapt his style to the talent he was working with, though that trick only got him so far.
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After starting from square one in their coaching ranks, the Panthers opted to do the same at quarterback. That meant trading D.J. Moore and a slew of picks, including their first-round selection next year, to Chicago for the right to eventually draft Bryce Young. A two-year starter at Alabama, Young posted video game numbers for the Crimson Tide. He threw for 8,200 yards and 79 scores over the pair of seasons. Though not much of a runner, Young also punched in seven scores on the ground.
Outside of his underwhelming size (5'10/204), it’s impossible to find a glaring flaw in Young’s game. His pocket awareness and footwork are second to none. Pro Football Focus gave him a top-10 passing grade among Power Five quarterbacks while under pressure in 2022 and 2021. From clean pockets, a more stable way of measuring quarterback play, Young ranked first and second in PFF passing grade. Young was also a top-10 Power Five passer in EPA per dropback in both of his seasons as a starter. He doesn’t possess elite arm strength, but his accuracy and timing on long throws more than make up for a slight deficit in power. PFF graded him as their No. 3 deep ball passer in his final season. The caveat is that he ranked 56th in rate of deep attempts.
Young enters the league as one of the most NFL-ready prospects in a while. It’s fair to assume Reich will still attempt to pair him with a strong running game, but he should be able to put a lot on the rookie’s plate in Week 1. That also means that there is virtually no chance of Andy Dalton making an appearance this year barring an injury to Young.
The Panthers’ rotation at receiver should be entirely new for 2022. They gave Adam Thielen a three-year, $25 million deal in free agency and followed that up with a one-year, $5 million contract for D.J. Chark. Thielen’s contract suggests the team views him as their No. 1 receiver, though his drop-off in 2022 says otherwise. The veteran receiver set career lows in yards per target (6.7) and yards per route run (1.08) among many other stats. Nearing 33 years old, Thielen will be a safety valve for Young but nothing more.
Chark and second-round rookie Jonathan Mingo will compete for work as intermediate and downfield threats. Chark spent 2022 in Detroit where he totaled 502 yards and three scores across 11 games. Despite injuries being a constant in his career, Chark still flashed his deep speed at times, going over 90 yards in three of his final six games. A modest target share for Chark, which has been typical throughout his career, could leave room for Mingo to see plenty of looks as a rookie. Mingo’s only productive year was his senior season when he went for 861 yards and five scores. He showed out at the combine with a 4.46-second 40-yard dash. At 6'2/220, Mingo has a combination of size and speed that will give cornerbacks trouble.
The last member of the pass-catching group is another free agent addition, Hayden Hurst. The former Bengal, Falcon, and Raven was signed to a three-year, $21.8 million contract in the offseason. Hurst topped 50 catches in a season for the second time last year. He will contribute as a blocker and possibly a red zone weapon for Carolina. Hurst should settle in as a low-end TE2 for fantasy purposes.
The Panthers sent Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco midseason and got a surprising string of performances from D’Onta Foreman in his place. Foreman walked in free agency but Fitterer replaced him with Miles Sanders on a four-year, $25.4 million deal. Sanders joins Chuba Hubbard, who also turned in an efficient second half of the season in 2022, as the noteworthy backs for Carolina.
After a pair of injury-shortened seasons killed the hype built from his rookie campaign, Sanders finally broke out in 2022 with 1,269 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He ranked 21st in rush yards over expected per attempt and recorded the third-most carries of 10 or more yards. Sanders still did little in the way of breaking tackles, ranking 34th in missed tackles forced per carry and 32nd in yards after contact per attempt. He was also a lackluster pass-catcher, finishing dead last in yards per route run.
Hubbard posted a shockingly similar efficiency profile to Sanders. He finished seventh in rush yards per expected per attempt but graded poorly in yards after contact and missed tackles forced. With Foreman and Hubbard both exiting the season as top-10 backs in rush yards over expected, it’s fair to speculate that the Panthers’ offensive line and power running scheme helped boost the numbers of its backs. On the plus side, those factors should remain in place for the upcoming season. Though the coaching staff will be new, Reich oversaw Jonathan Taylor bringing home and rushing crown in 2021. All five of Carolina’s starters along the line will return for 2023 as well.
Sanders’ contract makes it clear that he should step into a sizable role from the start. The only downside is that he is unlikely to force himself into much of a pass-catching role. Outside of his rookie season, Sanders has been one of the least efficient running backs by yards per route run. He should still be able to return RB2 numbers, but it’s possible Raheem Blackshear steals some work on passing downs. Hubbard’s impressive 2022 campaign makes him an intriguing backup, though he doesn’t figure to have a standalone role as long as Sanders is healthy.
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PointsBet Over/Under: 7.5
The Panthers are at the turning point in their rebuild while two of their division rivals—Tampa Bay and Atlanta—are a year behind them in the process. The NFC South was won by a Tampa Bay squad that had a losing record in 2022. Their final divisional opponent, New Orleans, enters the season with a quarterback whose last team cut him. Young should come out of the gate firing on all cylinders in Reich’s scheme and he’ll do so against one of the easiest schedules in football. If forced to take a side, I’d lean toward the over, though +375 for Carolina to win the division is more appealing.