Last season, as Matt Rhule took over as Head Coach and Joe Brady took over as Offensive Coordinator, the Panthers produced three Top 25 receivers in fantasy. Robby Anderson—who came over from the Jets—finished WR19, Curtis Samuel was WR24, and D.J. Moore finished as WR25. And all that came despite a middling season from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater, who signed in free agency after two years in New Orleans, started 15 games for Rhule, Brady, and the Panthers. He produced 3,733 passing yards and just 15 touchdowns, leading the Panthers to a 4-11 record in his starts. The Panthers sent Bridgewater to Denver this off-season, traded for former Jets’ quarterback Sam Darnold, and saw Samuel leave in free agency for Washington.
With a new look offense, can the Panthers repeat the Top 25 WR trio with Darnold in 2021? Let’s look at the evidence.
Darnold was the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Jets but had a rocky three seasons with the team, the last two playing for Adam Gase. Darnold started 13 games as a rookie, throwing for 2,865 yards and 17 TDs. In 2019, under Gase, he started 13 games, throwing for 3,024 yards and 19 TDs. In 2020, in 12 games, he threw for 2,208 yards and nine TDs. The questions for 2021 are durability—can Darnold appear in more than 13 games—and production. While Bridgewater wasn’t incredible, he produced 700 more passing yards than Darnold has in his best season, though fewer TD passes.
During Darnold’s time in New York, receivers haven’t thrived, either. Jamison Crowder was the only Jet in the Top 40 in 2020, finishing as WR39. In 2019, Crowder was WR26, while Anderson, in his final year in New York, was WR40. In 2018, Anderson was the only receiver in the Top 40, coming in at WR39. Darnold would need to take a big step forward in his production to come close to duplicating last year’s offensive success. That’s what many are counting on in 2021.
Another potential challenge for receivers could be a full season for running back Christian McCaffrey. In 2021, McCaffrey was limited to just three games, catching 17 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown on 19 targets. Fellow running back Mike Davis, who started 12 games for the team, saw 70 targets, bringing in 59 receptions for 373 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a combined 89 targets and 76 receptions.
The prior year, when McCaffrey was RB1 in fantasy, McCaffrey was much more active as a receiver. He saw 142 targets, bringing in 116 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. That kind of production would make him like a wide receiver in the offense, taking targets and receptions away from down-field weapons. In 2019, no receiver saw as many targets or had as many receptions as McCaffrey. All three receivers saw more targets and had more receptions than the running backs in 2020.
Moore and Anderson return for the Panthers in 2021, and both were the top targets in 2020. Anderson led the team with 136 targets, catching 95 passes for 1,096 yards and three TDs. Moore saw 118 targets, catching 66 passes for 1,193 yards and four TDs. Both figure to be starters and top targets in 2021 as well. Moore has done it before, finishing as WR16 in 2019, playing with a combination of Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, and Will Grier at quarterback.
Aside from those two, the Panthers have two new options at receiver. The team filled the void left by Samuel’s departure by signing former Seahawk receiver David Moore and drafting former LSU Tiger Terrace Marshall, Jr., who played for Brady when they were both on the Tigers’ National Championship Squad in 2019.
Moore played four seasons for the Seahawks, catching 78 passes for 1,163 yards and 13 TDs on 134 targets. With the Panthers, Moore could potentially have more opportunities for targets after Samuel saw 97 targets in 2020. Marshall also adds to the mix, having caught 106 passes for 1,594 yards and 23 TDs in three seasons. He was taken in the Second Round of the draft and figures to be a key piece of the passing game moving forward.
Moore is currently going as WR24, and I think that’s a value. He was WR25 in 2020 but WR16 in 2019. He’s a top target that didn’t click with Bridgewater, but I expect him to bounce back to be the Panthers’ top wide receiver in 2021, leaving him undervalued at his current ADP. Anderson, meanwhile, sits at WR33. He had a fantastic season in 2020 with the Panthers, has experience with Darnold, and is coming into a contract year. However, I believe McCaffrey will command a bigger share of the targets, and Moore will return to being the Alpha receiver in 2021. That leaves Anderson as more of a complementary target, meaning his ADP aligns with my feeling he’ll be in the WR3 range in 2021.
Marshall is currently going as WR76, while Moore is going as WR95. Last season, the Panthers threw 550 times. With McCaffrey back, I suspect the rushing attack will be stronger. In addition, he’ll likely command 120-140 targets. If we assume the Panthers throw 550-575 times again, that leaves about 400 targets for receivers and tight ends. I see about 250 of those going to Moore and Anderson, leaving 150 to split among the rest.
That’s not a lot to split between Marshall, Moore, and tight end Dan Arnold. Samuel did part of his damage in 2020 on the ground, carrying the ball 41 times for 200 yards and two TDs. Whichever receiver is used in a similar role will have greater value. I like Marshall long-term but suspect he’ll be in WR4 territory in 2021. Moore and Arnold will likely have some good moments, but I believe both will be complementary players that are better in NFL terms than for fantasy players.
The Panthers produced three top receivers in 2020, but I think 2021 will more closely mirror 2019 with McCaffrey back in the fold. Moore will finish in WR2 range, with Anderson in WR3 range and Marshall providing some deep league flex appeal.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus 2 Canton Podcast Network.