Game Predictions & Player Projections - CAR vs DEN

David Dorey, @DMDorey

Prediction: CAR 20, DEN 23 (Line: CAR by 3)

This is the way to open the season! Rematch of Super Bowl 50 that was won by the Broncos 24-10 in a defensive showing for the ages. This time around there will be no Peyton Manning and the Panthers will get back Kelvin Benjamin. But playing this in Denver just makes the game that much harder for the Panthers who would like to extract some sense of revenge but haven't looked that sharp in the preseason. The Broncos bring a new quarterback to the game as well. The Broncos were 6-2 at home while the Panthers were 7-1 on the road.

Carolina Panthers

1 @DEN --- 10 KC ---
2 SF --- 11 NO ---
3 MIN --- 12 @OAK ---
4 @ATL --- 13 @SEA ---
5 TB --- 14 SD ---
6 @NO --- 15 @WAS ---
7 BYE --- 16 ATL ---
8 ARI --- 17 @TB ---
9 @LA ---      
News | Statistics | Roster
CAR @ DEN Rush Catch Pass
QB Cam Newton 40,1 250,1
RB Jonathan Stewart 50 2-10
WR Devin Funchess 4-60
WR Charles Johnson 3-50
TE Greg Olsen 5-60,1
PK Graham Gano 2 FG 2 XP

Pregame Notes: The Panthers dropped Week 16 in Atlanta to prevent a 16-0 record and then surprisingly flopped in the Super Bowl in the face of a ferocious defense. It was a bitter defeat given how successful the season was. It was punctuated with the all too brief press conference appearance by Cam Newton. This is the same team that played in that game save for the loss of CB Josh Norman. Plus Kelvin Benjamin is back looking to restart his career after missing 2015 with a knee injury. The preseason doesn't always mean much other than it establishes which 53 guys get to keep their lockers. But it was concerning that the Panthers never looked sharp in the preseason. They didn't win the Super Bowl so there isn't that pressure or track record of "next year dives". But the Panthers no longer have the best schedule strength in the league and this game - on the road no less - will be a symbol of the more challenges that they will face for 2016.

QUARTERBACK : Cam Newton was one of the best surprises of the 2016 fantasy season. After being downgraded in all drafts from the loss of Kelvin Benjamin, it was thought that there were no receivers for him left to use. That proved incorrect. Newton not only passed for 3837 yards and 35 touchdowns, he added 636 yards and ten more scores as a runner. He was the top fantasy quarterback in all leagues and at times by a large margin.

Newton only passed for 265 yards and one interception in the Super Bowl.

RUNNING BACK : The good news was that Jonathan Stewart finally was given the reins without DeAngelo Williams around to steal carries. The result - about the same as always. He missed his standard three games per year and while he ran for a career high 242 carries, he only gained 969 yards and six touchdowns. He had almost no role as a receiver. Cameron Artis-Payne had nearly no carries at all until the final weeks when Stewart was out but even then he never had more than 14 rushes for 59 yards in any game. Newton takes so many runs and scores away from the backfield that there is never that much fantasy value here.

Despite the loss of Benjamin, the running backs ended up ranked #32 in the NFL for receptions with only a combined 51 by all backs. No back had more than 18 catches on the year.

Stewart scored once but only ran for 29 yards on 12 carries against the Broncos last year.

WIDE RECEIVER : This is where there is the most fantasy interest this season. Kelvin Benjamin returns after posting 1008 yards and nine scores as a rookie in 2014 but then missing the entire 2015 season with a knee injury. His ACL has healed though he has not looked sharp so far in the preseason. His chemistry with Newton has not shown up yet. Devin Funchess ended with only 31 catches for 473 yards as a rookie and his 120 yards in Week 17 against the Bucs helped that stat. But he has been impressive in the preseason and should see more time. Funchess has worked in more than one position so far and could see time in the slot. Ted Ginn Jr. remains the starter with a career high 10 touchdowns on his 44 catches for 739 yards. That dwarfed anything he had done in his nine previous seasons in the NFL. He was pressed into service and responded well. Ginn turned in 80+ yards and two scores for three games in a row ending Week 15.

No wideout gained more than the 80 yards by Philly Brown in the Super Bowl and none scored.

TIGHT END : Greg Olsen returns for his tenth NFL season and 2015 was a career best with 77 catches for 1104 yards and seven touchdowns. He's been bothered by back spasms this summer but is not expected to have any problems for this game or the season.

Olsen was held to only 41 yards on four catches in the Super Bowl.

MATCH TO THE DEFENSE: This is still one of the top defenses in the NFL. The Broncos ranked #1 in sacks (66) and #2 in fumble recoveries (16). The Broncos also allowed just 1257 rushing yards to all running backs combined to rank #3. Playing in Denver is an obvious advantage as well. This is a repeat of the last real game that you watched. Playing in Denver makes a distinct difference.

Cam Newton is a must start every week of course. But Jonathan Stewart loses appeal against a defense that never allowed more than 81 rushing yards to a visiting running back last year and Stewart doesn't much catch the ball either. Tedd Ginn gets Aqib Talib again and even Chris Harris on Benjamin is not that attractive. The only must start beyond Newton is Olsen. The Broncos allowed just four touchdowns to among all visiting wideouts last year and yet tight ends scored five times there.

RANKS (1-32, 1 = BEST) TEAM QB RB WR TE PK DEF
Gaining Fantasy Points CAR 1 27 20 5 2 1
Preventing Fantasy Points DEN 1 14 2 22 7 27

Denver Broncos

1 CAR --- 10 @NO ---
2 IND --- 11 BYE ---
3 @CIN --- 12 KC ---
4 @TB --- 13 @JAC ---
5 ATL --- 14 @TEN ---
6 @SD --- 15 NE ---
7 HOU --- 16 @KC ---
8 SD --- 17 OAK ---
9 @OAK ---      
News | Statistics | Roster
DEN vs CAR Rush Catch Pass
QB Brock Osweiler 10 250,1
QB Trevor Siemian 20 210
RB C.J. Anderson 80,1 2-20
RB Devontae Booker 30 3-20
WR Emmanuel Sanders 3-50
WR Demaryius Thomas 7-80
TE Virgil Green 3-40
PK Brandon McManus 3 FG 2 XP

Pregame Notes: The Broncos come off their Super Bowl win and while they got Peyton Manning a ring, he isn't around to thank them. Nor is Brock Osweiler who jetted to Houston for bigger bucks much to the dismay of the team that groomed him. The team also moved on from Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis. They drafted Paxton Lynch with their 1.26 pick right before the Cowboys could reach him but starting the year will be Trevor Siemian. He'll give way at some point to the rookie and that downgrade at quarterback is the only part of this team that may end up as a problem.

QUARTERBACK : One of the bigger surprises was that Mark Sanchez could not beat out Trevor Siemian for the starting role in Week 1. Siemian was a seventh round afterthought in 2015 but outplayed the former first round pick from 2009 in Sanchez. This all throws a lot of unknowns and risk on the passing offense and that may not go away for much of the year since Paxton Lynch will get his time sooner than later.

RUNNING BACK : Another miscue by the Broncos was thinking that they would hold into C.J. Anderson more easily than what happened. An offer by the Dolphins landed Anderson back in Denver with a four-year, $18 million deal when they matched. He will be the bell cow of this offense though he never had more than 15 carries in any regular season game last year. The Broncos drafted Devontae Booker with their fourth round pick and he is expected to be the primary back-up and change of pace. Their division of labor is the most interesting part of the offense this week. Anderson should take a heavy load but he's rarely had much work more than the 15 carry mark and he's yet to play all 16 games even on his lower carry threshold of the past.

Anderson rushed for 90 yards and a score on 23 carries in the Super Bowl.

WIDE RECEIVER : For fantasy purposes, this is where the change in quarterbacks will be felt and the effect cannot be known until it is seen. Trevor Siemian has never thrown an NFL pass. Neither has Paxton Lynch. That makes Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders hard to forecast. Preseason work suggested that Thomas was going to still get plenty of targets every week though Sanders is less certain. And how well those passes are thrown remains to be seen. The plan is to feature the run more this year but the two starting wideouts should remain fantasy relevant even if no other receivers are.

Both Cody Latimer (knee) and Bennie Fowler (elbow) are banged up. They are not certain to play and as such will not receive projections.

Thomas was shut down in the Super Bowl with one catch but Sanders gained 83 yards on six receptions.

TIGHT END : This could be another area of concern. The Broncos only threw four touchdowns to this position in 2015. And three of those went to Owen Daniels who is gone. Jeff Heuerman has been the guy they wanted to step up but he's been plagued by injuries and never played last year as a rookie and missed time with a hamstring strain in the preseason. Virgil Green enters his sixth season and has never caught more than 12 passes before. He could top that over the first few weeks. Green is the one to watch here and both Siemian and Lynch could follow the trend of relying more on a tight end in a first year as the starting quarterback.

MATCH TO THE DEFENSE: The Panthers defense was awe-inspiring last year and working a lighter schedule helped at least some. Much the same unit returns for 2016 other than all-world cornerback Josh Norman. This remains a formidable defense to be sure with plenty of talent but the loss of Norman will make it hard to repeat as the #1 defense in interceptions (31). They also ranked #2 in sacks (57) behind only these Broncos.

The biggest weakness this team had was against running backs and Anderson already had a fine effort in the Super Bowl. He's worth a home start even against the Panthers. Any other player carries risk. But the loss of Norman means that there is less concern about shutting down a wideout and Thomas won't be limited as he was in January. Both Sanders and Thomas are every week considerations and even against the Panthers should be considered.

Virgil Green is too unknown to merit any consideration yet and the same goes for Siemian.

The Broncos defense is a good start this week as well, especially in a big game at home. The Panthers could press to make something happen after their loss in January and the Broncos will be only too happy to repeat their previous success.

RANKS (1-32, 1 = BEST) TEAM QB RB WR TE PK DEF
Gaining Fantasy Points DEN 29 26 10 20 11 3
Preventing Fantasy Points CAR 4 19 10 12 2 9

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