- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Besides Steve Smith, is there fantasy value to be had on the Panthers?
Of course there is. The problem, though, is that there isn't any top-flight talent to be found elsewhere on the roster.
Since most fantasy owners focus first on the running backs, after Steve Smith, all eyes will next turn to the DeShaun Foster/DeAngelo Williams position battle. With four weeks to go until the start of the regular season, it's a competition destined to go down to the wire, if it doesn't result in a straight time-share, a nightmare for fantasy owners.
Upside chasers -- those who scratch and claw to get the breakout campaign -- might find it irresistible to nab Williams, perhaps even if it means designating him their No. 2 fantasy running back. Though he failed to meet expectations as a rookie in 2006, when Williams did get a chance to strut his stuff, he made it clear he has the talent to be a real force for many years ahead. In his two starts, he managed a combined 261 scrimmage yards and a score. In the six games in which Williams touched the ball 10 times or more, he averaged 107.2 scrimmage yards and 4.3 yards per carry, not bad numbers at all.
Count on the Panthers getting Williams much more involved in the running game in 2007, helping back up his breakout candidacy. For one thing, it certainly helps that the Panthers, with new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson, have crafted their zone-blocking scheme perfectly to Williams' skills set. That should allow the sophomore to reach the outside more often and let his speed control the game. Williams himself notes how similar the Panthers' approach is to the one used during his college days at Memphis.
Still, while Williams might be generating early excitement, don't ignore his limitations. He's not particularly adept in goal-line situations -- at least not yet -- and Foster's experience is still something that appeals to John Fox and his coaching staff. Even if Williams takes hold of the starting role early in the season, Foster at worst could wind up the goal-line back. Foster might have uninspiring numbers in recent seasons and a checkered injury history, but health willing, he's going to be part of the Panthers' plans somehow.
Worse yet: Nick Goings could wind up the goal-line back during the preseason, and that's a prospect neither Foster's nor Williams' potential owners would welcome.
Turning the focus to the quarterback, any team with a talent like Smith has to earn its QB some attention, and Jake Delhomme, when you think about it, really gets a bad rap.
Remember, it was only three short years ago when Delhomme, still on board as the team's starting quarterback for 2007, nearly managed a 4,000-yard, 30-TD campaign (he had 3,886 yards and 29 scores). From 2004-05, he had 18 multi-TD efforts in 32 games, and last season, he averaged 216.6 passing yards per game with 16 TDs in his final 10 contests, respectable even if they're not spectacular numbers.
One can make the argument -- and rather well -- that the Delhomme-to-Smith connection is a case of "the receiver makes the quarterback," not the other way around. Still, that's quite the receiver helping Delhomme pad his stat sheet, and let's not belittle the up-and-coming talents behind Smith, like fourth-year receiver Drew Carter and rookie Dwayne Jarrett, either. There's enough here for Delhomme to work with, and with Davidson calling the shots and bringing some fresh blood to the offense, a bounce-back season is within his sights.
We'd be remiss if we didn't discuss the addition of David Carr, though, as Delhomme's backup and potential in-season competition. Sure, Carr threw more interceptions than TD passes in three of his five seasons in Houston, including 2006, but it's hard to ignore his accuracy. He actually led the league in completion percentage (68.3) last season, among QBs with at least 100 attempts, and his 82.1 passer rating actually ranked him 15th, only two spots behind Delhomme, in a much weaker offense.
It's still Delhomme's show to run, at least to begin the season, but if you can afford the bench spot to do it, Carr is one of the smarter handcuffs at the QB spot.
What about the aforementioned Carter and Jarrett? Keyshawn Johnson's departure creates a golden opportunity for these youngsters to step up as the No. 2 receiver alongside Smith. No, it's not a role that has generated much of any fantasy appeal since Muhsin Muhammad left town for Chicago following the 2004 season, but then this might be the most promising duo of receivers to get a crack at the spot since that campaign.
Jarrett, in particular, warrants sleeper consideration after setting a USC record with 41 career touchdowns. It might be asking a lot of him to adapt perfectly to the NFL game in his first season, but the ability is there for him to become a possession target alongside Smith. In the best-case scenario, Jarrett could be to Smith what Mike Furrey is to Roy Williams in Detroit, and that's not a bad player at all.
Plus, if Jarrett proves slow to get acquainted, Carter wouldn't be a bad fallback for the Panthers. He's a skilled downfield threat, whose 144-yard, one-touchdown effort in Week 14 of last season demonstrated his upside. Carter might be better suited to the No. 3 role on this team, but pressed into duty, he could have some matchups appeal.
Don't write off the defense, either. The Panthers might have finished the 2006 season only 16th in fantasy points at the position, but with talents like Julius Peppers (13 sacks in 2006), Dan Morgan and Kris Jenkins still on board, combined with the addition of talented rookie Jon Beason, there should be better times ahead for this unit. A lack of turnovers plagued last season's team, but you should expect better from these guys, especially in games against weaker offenses. At worst, the Panthers should be a fine matchups-type defense.
The bottom line: Smith aside, with a potential running-back-by-committee situation, a respectable starting quarterback albeit one with his limitations, and a receiving corps that boasts sleeper potential yet is dominated by a clear go-to guy, the Panthers shouldn't be looked at on draft day until you're pretty confident in your starting lineup. There's value here, but it's a noticeable drop off after top-15 overall talent Smith flies off the board.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
After Steve Smith, what fantasy value is there in Carolina?