Thursday Night Football
New Orleans @ Carolina
The cupcake stretch-run schedule Cam Newton owners have impatiently awaited begins Thursday night as the Panthers face a Saints defense that allows nearly 27 points per game, ranks 28th in yards allowed, and is playing on an especially crammed week following last Sunday night’s home-game shootout win over the Packers. On the road with very little rest, this is a prime letdown spot for New Orleans. Although Newton’s fantasy production has disappointed in back-to-back weeks, he is averaging 12 rushing attempts over his last three games as OC Mike Shula has been forced to aggressively expand the Panthers’ offensive playbook to compensate for Carolina’s leaky defense. The Panthers’ schedule from Weeks 9-16 reads vs. NO, @ PHI, vs. ATL, @ MIN, @ NO, vs. TB, and vs. CLE. Although Cam’s up-and-down tendencies may lead to some frustration, the slate aligns perfectly for Newton to be a second-half fantasy league winner. … Cam’s target distribution on the year: Kelvin Benjamin 57; Greg Olsen 50; Jerricho Cotchery 38; Jason Avant 32; Philly Brown 12; Jonathan Stewart 11; Brenton Bersin 10. … Saints LCB Keenan Lewis was a thorn in Jordy Nelson‘s (3-25-0) side during Sunday night’s win, but did allow a 70-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb, and New Orleans was plenty vulnerable to No. 1 receivers before that game. Opposing top-wideout stat lines against the Saints in their other six games: 10-154-1 (Golden Tate), 8-144 (Vincent Jackson), 3-44-1 (Dez Bryant), 5-70 (Greg Jennings), 6-70 (Andrew Hawkins), 7-116 (Julio Jones). Benjamin has produced like a borderline WR1 all year, leads Carolina in targets, racked up nearly 100 receiving yards against Richard Sherman last week, and has an above-average matchup. He should be locked into fantasy lineups every week from here on out.
Cotchery is worth a look for fantasy owners scrambling in WR3 slots with six teams on Week 9 byes. Cotchery is a role-playing possession receiver short on playmaking ability, but he’s averaged just under seven targets per game over the past five weeks and has an excellent matchup against struggling Saints Nos. 2 and 3 corners Corey White and Patrick Robinson. Cotchery could be a cheap source of 4-6 catches against New Orleans. … Olsen’s slow Week 8 (1-16) resulted from Seattle utilizing rolled safety coverage, forcing Cam to go elsewhere with the ball. It’s not an approach defenses will take every week to defend Olsen. It also doesn’t help that the Saints are 30th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends. But it does help that Olsen has been one of just five or six every-week fantasy starters at the annually thin tight end position, and Thursday night’s game has a 49-point over-under, third highest of Week 9. Through eight games — a large sample size — Olsen is on pace for career highs in catches (84), yards (1,018), and touchdowns (10). He’s a mid-range TE1 against New Orleans. … DeAngelo Williams‘ return from a high ankle sprain throws another wrench into Carolina’s perenially muddled backfield. In the only game both Williams and Stewart were healthy this season (Week 1 at Tampa Bay), Williams handled 14 touches amongst 26 snaps to Stewart’s 12 touches on 25 downs. Now-injured Mike Tolbert was also involved at the time, playing 33 snaps and handling nine touches. After Stewart ran well (16-79) on Seattle last week, my expectation would be a near-even timeshare between D-Will and J-Stew on Thursday Night Football. Both should be viewed as low-upside flex options against a Saints defense that’s permitted 627 yards and six touchdowns on 153 carries (4.10 YPC) to running backs this year.
Going in, last Sunday’s Seahawks-Panthers game had the look of a high-scoring shootout. Instead, both sides played sloppy football, failed to execute in the red zone, and combined for an unruly six fumbles and 22 points, 16 of which came from kickers. Is Carolina’s defense suddenly good again? I’m not ready to say that. Their secondary is among the worst in the NFL, their pass rush has gone down the tubes without Greg Hardy, and their run defense has been gashed consistently. This probably isn’t the week to start Drew Brees in daily leagues, but he’s a top-five QB1 in season-long formats. Even when Carolina’s defense was hitting on all cylinders last year, Brees lit them up for 60-of-86 passing (69.8%), 594 yards, and a combined 5:2 TD-to-INT ratio in two meetings. Brees’ results were much better in the home than road game, however. Road games have long been Brees’ kryptonite. Expect a good-not-great performance from fantasy’s No. 11 overall signal caller. … Brees’ target distribution with Pierre Thomas (ribs/shoulder) on the shelf last week: Brandin Cooks 7; Jimmy Graham 6; Marques Colston and Travaris Cadet 5; Kenny Stills 4; Mark Ingram 2; Josh Hill 1. … Finally used downfield after being limited to screens and quick hitters in New Orleans’ initial six games, Cooks went off in last Sunday night’s win over Green Bay, totaling 98 yards and two touchdowns on seven touches. Cooks also drew a 34-yard pass interference penalty. The targets were always there for Cooks — he’s second on the Saints with 51 — but the yardage had been difficult to come by. Still more WR3 than WR2, Cooks does theoretically have a difficult Thursday night draw against Carolina’s speedy linebackers. He should get open when matched on heavy-legged RCB Melvin White and fill-in slot corner James Dockery, however.
Graham played 62% of New Orleans’ Week 8 snaps, his highest rate since Week 4. He converted 5-of-6 targets into 59 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown. Graham’s production will keep improving as he gets more comfortable playing through his shoulder injury. Graham went 6-58-2 and 5-73-1 in last year’s two Panthers games and should be started confidently. … Just a hit-or-miss WR3 option — albeit with a lower ceiling than teammate Cooks — Colston’s 2013 stat lines against Carolina were 5-63-0 and 9-125-2. This year, Colston has more than eight targets in 3-of-7 games, but six or fewer in the other four. Like Cooks, Colston will run routes against burnable White and Dockery, in addition to SS Roman Harper. The Panthers are without usual slot CB Bene Benwikere (ankle), and FS Thomas DeCoud (hamstring) is questionable. The matchup is good, but Colston’s usage is always unpredictable. … Streak-route specialist Stills is averaging four targets per game and will only pay fantasy dividends if Brees hits him on a long bomb. Stills is never a realistic WR3 candidate in PPR, but you could do worse if you’re desperate in a standard league. Stills runs most of his patterns against left cornerbacks and will take on Panthers LCB Antoine Cason in this matchup. Pro Football Focus has charged Cason with five touchdowns allowed over his last six games. Stills is a 6-foot, 194-pound burner with 4.38 wheels. 6-foot, 191-pound Cason is a stiffer-hipped cover man who’s allowed an absurd 82.4% completion rate on throws into his coverage, the fifth worst mark in the league. … As Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson (arm) are both expected to miss one more game, Ingram is a legitimate RB1 against the Panthers, who’ve coughed up 934 yards and seven TDs on 179 carries (5.22 YPC) to opposing running backs. A contract-year man on a mission, Ingram is averaging 5.71 yards per carry with four touchdowns and seven receptions across four games. … Although Cadet’s five touches disappointed last Sunday night in a game where the Saints were killing clock, he remains in play as a PPR flex option. Cadet is a passing-down back, and Carolina has allowed the sixth most catches (48) to opposing running backs. Cadet’s playing time and usage will spike if the Panthers keep this game close or play with a lead.
Score Prediction: Panthers 24, Saints 21
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