Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
The Carolina Panthers won their fourth division title last season. It might be a while before they win their fifth.
With Steve Smith in Baltimore and Brandon LaFell weighing his options, Cam Newton may be Cam No-One-To-Throw-To next season.
To make matters worse, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon have also signed with other teams. Ginn received a three-year deal from Arizona while Hixon signed a one- year pact with Chicago. That leaves Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt as the Panthers' top two receivers. Neither one has caught a pass since college.
Last season, Smith, LaFell, Ginn and Hixon combined for 156 catches, 1,983 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. That accounts for 53.4 percent of Newton's completions, 58.7 percent of his passing yards and a whopping 62.5 percent of his touchdown passes.
Obviously, losing Smith will hurt the most. In three years playing together, Smith was responsible for 24.5 percent of Newton's completions, 29.3 percent of his yardage and 23.4 percent of his touchdown throws. Newton has targeted Smith 376 times since entering the league in 2011. That means 25.5 percent of Newton's passes as a professional have gone to Smith.
Like most receiver/quarterback relationships, it's a two-way street. Certainly Newton is going to miss Smith but the impact on Smith will be just as great.
In a large way, Newton's emergence has resurrected Smith's career. In the two years prior to Newton, Smith averaged 55.5 catches and 768 receiving yards. Since then, Smith has averaged 72 receptions and 1,104.3 yards per season. Trading Newton for the inconsistent Joe Flacco (his 73.1 rating was sixth- worst among qualified quarterbacks) will further damage Smith's already shrinking fantasy value.
But back to Cam for a minute. The mass exodus of Carolina's receiving corps is similar to the one Tom Brady witnessed in New England this past season. That offseason, Brady lost Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez. In 2012, those four combined for 64.6 percent of Brady's completions, 59.9 percent of his yards and 44.1 percent of his touchdowns. The next season, Brady put up his lowest QB rating (87.3) and completion percentage (60.5) in ten years. In fantasy, he went from the third highest- scoring quarterback in 2012 to the 13th-highest in 2013.
So where do the Panthers go from here? With Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks and Golden Tate already off the market, free agency won't provide any quick fixes at wideout. The team's best bet may be to draft one, though chain movers like Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks will be long gone by the time the Panthers pick. If they're lucky, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin could fall into their hands at No. 28.
If no replacements for Smith and LaFell emerge, the receiver-strapped Panthers could look to run the ball more in 2014.
Don't get too excited. Carolina's running back trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert averaged just 3.95 yards per carry last season. Still, with no deep threats to stretch the field, Tolbert (27 catches for 184 yards last season) and Williams (333 receiving yards in 2013) should both see more targets next season. That could lead to a slight fantasy improvement.
While Carolina's lack of receiving talent is sure to hurt Newton's passing numbers, his rushing stats should be through the roof. Newton pumped the brakes a bit last season (career-low 111 carries) but he'll be back to tuck and run early and often in 2014. Perhaps that will offset some of his passing deficiencies.
But the player who stands the most to gain in the absence of all these wide receivers is tight end Greg Olsen. Already among the leading pass-catchers at his position (his 73 grabs in 2013 were sixth-most by a tight end), Olsen could be a 1,000-yard receiver in 2014. With Rob Gronkowski recovering from ACL surgery and Jimmy Graham in a contract dispute with New Orleans, you could argue that Olsen is the safest tight end in this year's fantasy draft.
Steve Smith says "there's going to be blood and guts everywhere" the next time he plays the Panthers. No date has been set but the teams are scheduled to play each other this season.
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