Which Carolina Panthers Wide Receivers Should You Target in Fantasy Football?

Tight end Greg Olsen is Cam Newton's favorite target, but is there another pass-catcher on the Panthers would snagging at their current cost?

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton loves himself some Greg Olsen.

And why the heck not? Last season, only Olsen and Travis Kelce broke 1,000 receiving yards at the position, while just five other tight ends led their team in targets (Olsen, Kelce, Kyle Rudolph, Dennis Pitta and Charles Clay). Olsen topped this group with 132.

Using data from Josh Hermsmeyer's, we can more precisely see just how key Olsen was to the Panthers offense last year. Hermsmeyer's signature metric, air yards, shows the yardage of not just receptions, but the total intended yards from all targets.

Olsen posted nearly 500 more air yards than any other tight end in the NFL in 2016.

Hermsmeyer developed a couple of other metrics that have proven to be useful: Receiver Air Conversion Ratio (RACR), which looks at the player's ability to turn a passing yard thrown at him into receiving yards, and Weighted Opportunity Rating (WOPR), which takes a players target share and share of air yards and combines them to predict fantasy points.

Looking at the top-24 tight ends in points per reception scoring in 2016, Olsen ranked first in WOPR but placed 23rd in RACR. Despite the low RACR, Olsen led this group in average depth of target (aDOT), proof that Newton and the Panthers trust him deep down the field.

G Tar Rec Yards Air Yards aDOT MS Air Target Share WOPR RACR
Greg Olsen 16 129 1,073 1,406 10.9 0.25 0.23 0.52 0.76

But how do Newton and the Panthers feel about the rest of their receiving corps?

That's a big ol' question mark coming into 2017, which is why it's been difficult for fantasy football owners to determine where they should draft Panthers wideouts Kelvin Benjamin, Curtis Samuel, and Devin Funchess. Here's the average draft position (ADP) for the three, according to's data, along with some key 2016 statistics:

2017 ADP 2016 2016 Rec 2016 Rec Yds 2016 TDs 2016 Fantasy Points (PPR)
Benjamin 75.05 CAR 63 941 7 199.1
Samuel 177.19 NCAA n/a n/a n/a n/a
Funchess 224.05 CAR 23 371 4 84.1

Benjamin is the only Panthers wide receiver with an ADP in the first 10 rounds, while Samuel and Funchess are well off of most fantasy radars.

But are the Carolina receivers being unjustly ignored?

2016 Net Expected Points Data

Net Expected Points (NEP) might offer some perspective on both Benjamin's and Funchess' value and potential. NEP uses historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on each individual play. Positive NEP is earned when a player performs above expectation. You can visit our glossary to learn more.

Rec NEPRec NEP/TargetNFL AvgCatch RateSuccess Rate

The takeaway here is that Benjamin was more efficient than Funchess, as shown by his Reception NEP per target and catch rates.

Will that be the case in 2017?

Kelvin Benjamin: Volume Is King

In fantasy football, we want wide receivers who are getting a large chunk of their offenses directed at them. How many targets a receiver sees is a good way to quantify that, as is both Hermsmeyer's aforementioned air yards and his Market Share Air Yards (MS Air), which looks at the share of a player's air yards.

G Tar Rec Yards Air Yards aDOT MS Air Target Share WOPR RACR
Benjamin 16 117 941 1,381 11.8 0.24 0.21 0.5 0.68
Funchess 14 58 371 766 13.2 0.15 0.12 0.3 0.49

The numbers show that nearly a quarter of the Panthers' intended air yards -- as well as a fifth of the team's targets -- were directed at Benjamin. His RACR demonstrates he is far more effective at turning air yards in to actual production, while his WOPR proves that a larger portion of the pass game flowed through him.

While Funchess' aDOT demonstrates that he was used further down field than Benjamin, he wasn't as effective with his smaller opportunities. The below graph looks at both Funchess' and Benjamin's WOPR production in 2016, as compared to the top-36 wide receivers by PPR points.

Benjamin's 2016 performance was erratic, even though his WOPR was near the league average. As for Funchess, he was being taken as the WR42 in PPR leagues, yet he still underperformed.

This season, if you believe what Panthers coach Ron Rivera says, Funchess could have the opportunity to change the narrative.

Devin Funchess: Deep Sleeper?

Utilizing the PlayerProfiler metric Red Zone Targets Share -- which measures the percentage of all passing targets directed at a particular player from a line of scrimmage at or inside the 20-yard line -- Funchess posted a 23.7% share on 14 targets.

Kelvin Benjamin had nearly 60 more total targets than Funchess in 2016, yet only had one more red zone target, posting a 15-target, 22.1% score. It's a small stat line in favor of Funchess, but fantasy players should take note of how the team utilized him.

Funchess is currently having an excellent camp, according to the Charlotte Observer's Jourdan Rodrigue. Improved efficiency from Funchess, who posted that terrible 39.66% catch rate last season, could equal a bump in fantasy points.

Curtis Samuel: The New Ginn?

In previous years, the Panthers employed Ted Ginn Jr. as their deep threat. Samuel, who busted out a 4.31 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, can be utilized in a similar manner. He might also play a role in the Panthers' backfield, as during his three years at Ohio State, Samuel managed 172 carries, 1286 rushing yards, and 15 rushing touchdowns.

2017 Outlook

So what can we expect from this wide receiver trio in 2017? Our algorithms project Benjamin and Funchess to produce near their 2016 levels, and Samuel to have a modest but useful impact.

2017 numberFire projections Overall Rank Recs Yds TDs Fantasy Points
Kelvin Benjamin 26 67 966 5.34 128.46
Curtis Samuel 78 33 427 2.98 60.40
Devin Funchess 94 24 379 2.09 50.58

When drafting, given our projections, it may be best to avoid Benjamin at his ADP. But if he falls in the draft, be happy to grab him two rounds later. And if you don't get him, you can aim for Samuel and Funchess toward the end of your draft as high upside fliers. The big pass-catcher on the Panthers will always be Olsen, but there is value to be had at Carolina's wide receiver position this year.