USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Carolina Panthers’ Slot Battle Could Yield a 2021 Fantasy Football Sleeper

History shows us new quarterback Sam Darnold loves to target his slot receiver, which is great news for whichever wideout wins the job.

Rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. and ex-Seattle Seahawk David Moore are set to duke it out for the primary rights to the Carolina Panthers’s slot receiver gig. The team’s 2020 primary slot receiver, Curtis Samuel, left for Washington in free agency, leaving behind 97 targets and a lot of potential fantasy work.

It’s possible that Marshall has the inside track in this race as Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady was coaching Marshall at LSU two years ago, when the Tigers were tearing up the FBS with their aerial assault. However, 2020 rookie darling Justin Jefferson was manning the slot for Brady that season with Marshall playing predominantly on the perimeter. It wasn’t until after Brady and Jefferson’s departure that Marshall kicked inside, where he led the 2020 LSU team in receptions (48) and receiving touchdowns (10) while finishing five yards shy of the team lead in receiving yards (731).

Related: Best Rookie Landing Spots for 2021 Fantasy Football

David Moore, meanwhile, settled into a part-time slot role during his last two years in Seattle, working from the pre-snap interior position on an average of 26.65% of plays (per PFF).

The Importance of the Slot Receiver Role

Assessing the slot receiver prospects for the Panthers’ 2021 campaign requires an examination of their quarterback position, one that went through a serious upheaval this offseason.

Although Carolina added free agent QB Teddy Bridgewater just last year, team owner David Tepper impatiently instructed the front office to send a bundle of picks to the New York Jets for 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. Bridgewater found himself a mile high in Denver shortly after, in exchange for a sixth-round 2021 draft pick.

Jamison Crowder was the team leader in receptions (87), receiving yards (833), and receiving touchdowns (6) in 2019, establishing the narrative that slot receivers tend to operate as Darnold’s de facto No. 1 pass catcher. Last year muddied the statistical waters though as Darnold missed four games due to injury while Crowder missed time due to an early-season hamstring injury. He also later battled a nagging groin injury, and saw 29 of his 89 targets come from backup signal caller Joe Flacco.

For a clearer look at how Darnold’s slot reliance, let’s look instead at backup slot receiver Braxton Berrios.

Berrios, active in all 16 games, totaled 198 snaps for the Jets in 2020 (5th-most of the team’s WR corps) and spent 143 of them running routes from the slot (70.8% per PFF) . Impressively, Berrios racked up 0.19 targets per snap, tying Davante Adams and Antonio Brown with the second-highest target per snap total in the league. Saying that Darnold depends on his slot receiver is an understatement. They are integral to his success.

Primary perimeter receivers Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore will undoubtedly get their time on the inside—Anderson ran 190 slot routes in 2020 (32.6% per PFF) and Moore saw 129 chances on the inside (22.7%)—but the No. 1 slot job should bear valuable fantasy fruit.

Lots of Scoring Potential

Sharp Football’s Strength of Schedule metrics provide even more reasons for optimism for the Panthers’ potential passing attack.

From a defensive perspective, the expected 2021 pass defenses that Carolina is slated to face (in terms of pass defense efficiency) are skewed towards boom/bust results. The first-half of the season paints a rosy picture with match-ups against the Jets, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, and New England Patriots on tap. Meanwhile, the second-half of the year features stiffer defensive competition like the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (twice), and the New Orleans Saints, those three teams boast high-flying potential on offense that should lead to back-and-forth shootouts.

Both Marshall and Moore are going virtually undrafted according to Fantasy Football Calculator, making for exceptional late-round draft picks that have a decent chance at turning into a multi-flex, match-up based starter.

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