In his three NFL seasons, Cam Newton has finished as the No. 4, No. 4 and No. 3 quarterback in fantasy. But it's fair to argue that he's never had a receiving corps as unproven as he'll have in 2014.
Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn are gone. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin and journeymen Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant will replace them. Entering last year, Newton's top three wide receivers had a combined 1,051 pro catches. This year, that number will be 734. Cotchery and Avant each ran more than three-quarters of their routes out of the slot last season, and would thus seem to represent a duplication of effort. And Benjamin has potential, but his hands and play-to-play savvy were real question marks coming out of college.
Let me add into the mix the fact the Carolina Panthers' offensive line looks worse without retired Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton on the left side -- which will require a sometimes-shaky Byron Bell to move to Newton's blind side -- and with rookie Trai Turner starting at right guard. And finally, Newton had ankle surgery this winter.
So how worried should we be about his fantasy stock in '14? My answer is: not very.
First, let's dispense with the surgery concerns: Everything I've read (including this article from ESPN's own Stephania Bell) indicates, if anything, that Newton's mobility should be improved after this operation. As for the offensive line, the losses of Gross and Wharton absolutely are significant. I don't feel good about any Panthers RB. But Newton's strength doesn't come from pocket passing. I have a hard time getting worked up about the notion of him being under more pressure.
Why? For the reason I'm not going crazy about Newton's lack of WR weapons. Simply put: This is a quarterback whose primary value doesn't come from his arm.
Last year, Panthers WRs amassed the 26th-most receptions among all WR corps, and the 28th-most receiving yards. Steve Smith was a shell of himself, and LaFell was awful. Folks, Newton has never finished higher than 10th in passing yards or 11th in passing TDs in a single season, and he's been a top-four fantasy QB three years running.
That's the key word: running. We all know this, but maybe we're afraid to say it. All Newton has to be is passable as a passer, and he'll make his fantasy bones with his legs. Here are fantasy's cumulative top 10 QBs over the past three seasons, and the percentage of their fantasy points that comes from running:
And for frame of reference, here are some other running QBs, and how they fare by the same metric:
From '11 to '13, no other QB has rushed for double-digit TDs. Newton has rushed for 28. In that same span, no other QB has eclipsed 1,304 yards rushing. Newton has 2,032. And unlike a couple of the more brittle players on the list of running QBs, Newton has never missed a game.
Do I think the Panthers are going to duplicate their 12-4 record from last year, and win the NFC South? I don't. As a whole, the offense seems primed to take a step back, and the defense might've lost a bit of its edge given the departure of half of last year's starting secondary and Greg Hardy's possible disciplinary issue. But Greg Olsen is still around to play security blanket for Newton, and the departure of Smith/LaFell hurts a lot more in name recognition than on the field.
But the larger point (literally) is: Newton is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound monster who earns his fantasy pedigree on the ground. I can't see any reason that won't continue in '14 and beyond. His ceiling is as high as ever, and his floor is high, too. He's my No. 4 QB in upcoming drafts.