The fantasy world is very apprehensive about the Carolina Panthers wide receivers. The widespread opinion is a diminished Panthers WR group lacks fantasy value and could even hurt QB Cam Newton’s value. The truth is not only is their receiving corps not diminished, it’s replenished. They may not be great, nonetheless they are improved. Carolina lost all three of their starting receivers from last season: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn. Longtime Panther Steve Smith is an all-time great and deserves all the respect in the world. But father time is undefeated. As Smith's age advances, his skills are declining. Before Newton's arrival, many felt Smith's years were waning then. His decline was simply prolonged which was reflected in his fantasy production. The former Utah alum's numbers have dropped each of the past two seasons. In 2013, he caught 64 passes for only 745 yards and four TDs. Production like this is pedestrian at best and barely enough to crack the Top 50 in WR production. LaFell and Ginn have both been disappointments both on the field and in fantasy. LaFell is coming off his best season as a pro, in which he caught 49 passes for 627 yards and 5 TDs. Those are solid numbers, but not for a No. 2 WR paired with a Top 10 fantasy QB. While Ginn is a glorified punt returner and part-time deep threat who caught 36 passes in 2013. Production like this is not difficult to replace.
The Panthers drafted Florida State star Kelvin Benjamin in the first round. Benjamin is a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder that can bail Newton out of trouble and be a huge red-zone target. He may be in a better situation than any other rookie in the league, at least in a position to start from Day 1 with next-to-no competition. Don’t be shocked if the former Seminoles WR puts up better fantasy numbers than both Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, at least in this their rookie season. In a twist of fate, the Ravens may live to regret signing free agent Steve Smith away from Carolina instead of drafting Benjamin to pair alongside Torrey Smith. Benjamin is a huge upgrade compared to anybody Newton had to throw to last season. He will be the Panthers' No. 1 receiver for the future.
Next up on the depth chart are veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Each receiver is expected to battle each other for playing time. Cotchery, who showed he still had something in the tank with Pittsburgh last season, and longtime Eagles receiver Avant are early favorites to win the position battle. Don’t bank on Avant as a lock to win the job outright though as Underwood is younger, a bit taller and faster. No matter which two win the starting job, they will be better players than LaFell and Ginn.
As a third option in Pittsburgh, Cotchery had a very respectable season. He caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 TDs. On the assumption Cotchery is the Panthers' WR2, his targets should increase, which will lead to more fantasy value. Newton will look to him to make the tough intermediate catches for first downs in pressure situations. Cotchery is 32 years old and those 10 touchdowns were as many as he had over his four previous seasons. In the right situation, he’s proven he can be a valuable commodity and potential mentor to the rest of the receivers on the team. He is going undrafted as of now, so he can be had at a great value considering his flex potential.
Avant and Underwood are players to watch in their own right as well. They aren’t draft worthy in most formats, nevertheless you should keep them on your radar when you’re perusing your league's waiver wire. If they start contributing, you could get a great value pick-up. Especially the younger Underwood who has spent of his career with something to prove.
Two receivers yet to be mentioned are Tavares King and Marvin McNutt. Either player could emerge as dark horse candidates to be major contributors in the Panthers' offense. Both showed considerable promise as rookies. Unfortunately they also found themselves buried on their respective benches. In Denver, King never had a chance with all the talent at the position and McNutt in both Philadelphia and Miami over the last two seasons. Although both are longshots to make a fantasy splash, they will both be given an opportunity to extend their careers by contributing to the Panthers offense. King and McNutt offer upside and potential where Carolina previously just had underachieving non-contributors in the past.
Many, perhaps even most see very little value within this position group. That's not an unfair conclusion. There is no carryover and knowing what to expect is a big part of fantasy football. The community's inability to discern how this might play out limits the plausibility of high expectations. For example, Benjamin’s ADP (113.77) has him being drafted as the 47th WR. This rates him as a bench player in standard leagues who would only start when the matchup is in his favor. Due to the Panthers' limited options, he could easily outproduce that draft position. He could climb into the Top 30 at his position just based on his red-zone talent along. He is also a solid first round pick in rookie/dynasty drafts. Every other receiver on the roster, at the very least, will be given an opportunity to excel with one of the league's most-promising QBs at their disposal.
This summer, keep a close eye on this position battle. The top receiver, whether it is Cotchery or Benjamin, should be given a serious look from fantasy owners. A new, unknown situation doesn't necessarily make it a bad one for fantasy owners.