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2017 Offensive ID: Shula/Panthers

2017 Offensive ID: Shula/Panthers
If you’re interested in this article, first please read my take on the offensive identities (Part 1 and Part 2) of all the teams in 2016. That will explain some of the stats in this article, which I will not explain here. As I did last year, I will write a detailed piece on each team.

Last year, I wrote about Mike Shula's time in Carolina that his teams had generally been very successful, so it was hard know how Shula’s identity would vary if his team lost more. Well, now we have some insight:










MS = Mike Shula's offense

NFL = Average NFL offense

Six wins is not a terrible team, but it's below what I typically call "mediocre," which to me is a 7-to-9-win year. "Terrible" to me is four wins or less, six is just a "bad" team. So Shula still has some depths to plumb.

I expect a bounce back season for the Panthers. Vegas puts Carolina in the 8-to-9-win range. That seems reasonable and as I look through Shula's history with this offense, if there are no other patterns, it will probably be somewhere between what we saw in 2013-2014, with the last two years being the extremes of what I expect for its 2017 identity.


The Offense Overall










Total plays – the sum of rushing and passing plays.

Here we have a definite pattern: Shula's offense generates between 1050-1060 plays. There was just a slight downtick in total plays between a 15-win year and a 6-win season, so even if the team collapses to the "bad" level, I'd expect about 1040 plays out of Shula's offense. This team averages about two more plays per games than the rest of the league… not a huge amount but a slight positive for fantasy production.










% Rushing plays - the percentage of total plays devoted to running the ball, including QB runs.

This is a run heavy offense, even when playing from behind. The addition of Christian McCaffrey and O-line depth probably reinforces that tendency. I'd expect runs on about 45-48% of the plays: go with 46% if you want a precise guess.



















Total Passes includes sacks as well as pass attempts.

Playing from behind more didn't translate into more plays but it did mean an increase in passes and decrease in runs. With a few more wins in 2017, I'd expect around 475 runs and 575 total passes: a drop of around 25 pass plays and rise of around the same number of rushes.

As with other teams that have running QBs, the Panthers RBs lose some carries to Cam Newton. Last year Newton ran a career low 90 times (his 6 carries per game was also a career low) and Carolina was still 3rd in QB carries, while a middle-of-the-pack 15th in RB rushes.

On the one hand, the team was more successful when Newton ran more, on the other, the Panthers must know that they have to keep Newton healthy. So look for the increase in runs to go almost totally to the RBs, pushing the team into the Top 10 in RB carries.












MS F1 – Mike Shula’s top fantasy scorer at this position; 25 yds = 1 FP; td pass = 4 FP

No doubt fantasy owners of Newton were disappointed by where the dot ended up in 2016. For those hoping for a return to the previous #1 ranking in 2017, keep this in mind: in 2015, Newton led the league with a 7.1% rate of TDs on his passes, ran a career-high 8.3 times a game, and scored 10 TDs on the ground. In 2016, those numbers were 3.7%, 6.0, and 5. His career averages: 4.6%, 8, and 7.4. I'd expect a TD rate in line with his career norm and rushing numbers closer to 2016 than previous seasons.

That means a fantasy season around QB6, better than last year but not at 2015's heights. Of course he has upside if he runs more, but that would also raise his injury risk and downside.


Running Backs










Rush % RB1 – RB1 is defined as the RB on the team who got the largest number of carries. The Rush % RB1 is the percentage of the team’s total RB rushes claimed by its RB1.

When Shula has had a clear top running back (Jonathan Stewart), he has given him an above average share of carries for an RB1. But when Shula's had two good RBs, he has limited how many times his top back carried the ball. This hurts both Stewart's and McCaffrey's prospects.

So even with my expected increase in RB carries, the likelihood is a 55-45 or 50-50 timeshare in rushes between the Panthers top two backs based on Shula's history. I have no special insight but think that Stewart will be the "55" guy if there is one. Both have some upside since one might get hurt, but both are limited by Newton's tendency to vulture TDs.



















Target % - the percentage of the total targets thrown to each position group.

Shula doesn't throw much to his RBs: the Panthers were last in the league in RB target share and totals in 2016. While McCaffrey is often projected as a good pass-catching back, this offense will have to change its identity to make use of his skills in that area. Given the usual limitations of rookie RBs in pass-blocking, my guess is that it is a year before McCaffrey's presence really has an influence on how Shula spreads the targets around. Remember, this team has an excellent TE and a lot of draft capital invested in WRs (a #1 and two #2s). For now, I'd expect about 15% of the targets to go to the RBs, around 80 total: up a bit (remember to take about 40 sacks off the total passes if you check my arithmetic or do your own) but still below the league averages. If McCaffrey only gets 45-50% of the carries, even with most (60?) of the targets, it will hard for him to be a fantasy RB1 in 2017.



















The Target % for RB1 is the share of the targets to his position group.

Stewart's share of the RB targets dropped again in 2016. Even though injury cut those numbers last year, he is basically just a RUSHING back now and McCaffrey likely will eat even more into his share and target totals. The only way Carolina's RB1 target numbers go up in 2017 is if McCaffrey becomes the lead ball-carrier: even an injury to the rookie is not going to get Stewart more involved in the passing game.










MS F1 – Mike Shula’s top fantasy scorer at this position; PPR scoring

Stewart fell back into fantasy RB3 territory in 2016, where Shula's RBs normally have been. So even if McCaffrey gets the bulk of the RB carries and targets – and those targets go up – the identity of this offense has not produced an RB1 with Shula there. In part, this has been because Newton takes away a lot of TDs, but the passing game usage is a factor. Finally, even the last two seasons, the RB1 here has not seen over 65% of the carries. All that means I peg Stewart as a fantasy RB3 again, with downside because of McCaffrey's presence and limited upside even if he gets hurt.

Because I expect McCaffrey to at least get a decent 60 targets, or about 45 receptions, he might actually top Stewart for fantasy even with the rookie carrying the ball 25-50 fewer times than the veteran. A lot depends on the TD distribution. Here's how RBs have done in fantasy over the last 15 years with 175-225 carries and 40-50 catches:







If they don't get many TDs (rushing and receiving combined), they are marginal RB2s. If they get several TDs, they are solid fantasy RB2s with some upside. And if they get a good number of touchdowns, they are low-end RB1s. Based on how I think the identity of this offense shapes up to use McCaffrey, I think even with that limited use he still is a decent fantasy RB2. But he has to get more TDs than I think are likely to be an RB1 – or more opportunities to touch the ball.


Wide Receivers



















Shula throws to his WRs about an average amount as a share of the passing game. The number of total targets that translates into depends on how often the team throws: more when its won 6-8 games, less when it's had double-digit wins. In 2017, I'd look for a little over 300 targets to the WRs. Note that because this team throws deeper passes than most to its WRs (average depth of target (aDOT) = 12.0 vs. 11.0 for NFL WRs overall, all aDOT data from, they typically have lower than usual catch rates regardless of Newton's accuracy limitations. This is not a particularly WR-friendly offense overall.



















WR1 is defined as the team’s WR who got the most targets. The Target % for WR1 is the share of the targets to his position group.

The return of Kelvin Benjamin did not mean the team gave its WR1 an above average share of targets as it did in 2014. His 118 targets and 36% of WR targets were both below average for a WR1.

In 2017, I expect his targets to get back to the league WR1 average. The departures of Ted Ginn and Corey Brown freed 146 targets, and while the addition of FA Charles Johnson and draftee Curtis Samuel plus a slight shift of targets to RBs will absorb some of those, it's not unreasonable to think Benjamin can at least pick up 10 of them. He has some upside if he can get his share back above 45% of the WR targets, where it was in 2014.












WR# based on number of targets: most targeted = WR1, 2nd-most, WR2, etc.

This has been a typical offense overall in terms of targeting WR1s under Shula. WR2s are used less than average and WR3s a little more than normal. About an average amount of targets are wasted on the “other” WRs.










MS F1 – Mike Shula’s top fantasy scorer at this position; PPR scoring

Most years Shula’s WR1 hasn’t cracked the Top 24. When Benjamin got an unusually heavy target share for a Shula WR1, he was a low-end WR2. That's his upside; his expectation should be as a fantasy WR3.










MS F2 – Mike Shula’s 2nd highest fantasy scorer at this position, PPR scoring

Shula’s offense has never had a fantasy-relevant WR2. Last year, Ted Ginn was just inside the Top 60, so if you start that many WRs - or count the WR5 on your bench as relevant, that's a slight exaggeration. I'd leave Devin Funchess on the waiver wire unless it was a really deep league.










MS F3 – Mike Shula’s third highest fantasy scorer at this position, PPR scoring

If the 2nd best WR isn’t any good for fantasy, the 3rd best guy isn’t either.


Tight Ends



















Although the Panthers' TEs had a drop in target share last year, more total passes meant the TE total targets stayed flat. I'd project 27-28% of the targets going to TEs in 2017, so just around 150 targets this year. Remember, Greg Olsen doesn't get all of those, as Ed Dickson probably takes up 25 of them. But Olsen will still be in the Top 3 to 5 TEs in targets.










MS F1 – Mike Shula’s top fantasy scorer at this position; PPR scoring

What I wrote last year still applies:

Shula and Greg Olsen equals fantasy-starting TE. Olsen has so dominated the position, playing every game in Shula’s tenure, that I can’t make a stats prediction on what would happen if he missed time. If it’s some other TE playing, my gut says it could benefit the WRs.



  • Overall, based just on Shula’s history, some thoughts on this system:
  • Between 1050-1060 plays, a slight positive for fantasy production.
  • Around 475 runs and 575 total passes.
  • Newton will still run a lot but I expect not as much as before 2016, RBs should be in the Top 10 in total carries.
  • QB: a fantasy season around QB6, better than last year but not at 2015's heights; upside if Newton runs more, and if he does, more injury risk and downside.
  • RB: a 55-45 or 50-50 time share in rushes, still below average use in the passing game, and Newton vulturing TDs.
    • Stewart is a fantasy RB3 because of the limits even if he leads the team in carries.
    • McCaffrey gets ~200 carries and ~60 targets, is a fantasy RB2 with upside..
  • WR: this is not a particularly WR-friendly offense
    • Benjamin gets 125-130 targets and is a fantasy WR3 with upside if he's used more.
    • Other WRs in this offense have little fantasy value.
  • TE: Shula and Greg Olsen equals fantasy-starting TE.

Once again, Newton and Olsen seem to be very predictable. I have a slight question about how much running Newton will do, more is better while he stays healthy but also increase his chance of getting hurt. Benjamin's target numbers are another question, he could be a fantasy WR2 if he gets over 45% of the WR targets like he did in 2014 but that's the extent of his upside. The big question is how Shula integrates McCaffrey into the offense. How many carries will he get? Will the team use its shiny new RB more in the passing game? Will the rookie take goal-line touches from Stewart, or even Newton. I've made fairly conservative estimates and still think McCaffrey is a fantasy RB2. I wouldn't pay a lot for his upside, because those estimates have given McCaffrey a reasonable amount of credit already, but if I could bet on one RB in this offense to be a fantasy RB1 this year (and get my money back if it was neither), I'd bet on McCaffrey.

Mike Horn
Statistical Analyst

Mike, our resident stat head, has been playing fantasy football for over 15 years and high-stakes leagues for over a decade.  He joined the Fantasy Guru staff in 2005.

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December 31, 1969
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December 31, 1969