Will Carolina Find Their “Norvana”?
In an offseason full of nepotistic hires, Ron Rivera on-boarding his old head coach from their San Diego days is no exception. As the head honcho for Carolina, Rivera’s offensive coordinator hires have all been disciples of the Air Coryell offense – from Rob Chudzinski to Mike Shula and now to Norv Turner. When Rivera first took the head coaching job in Carolina, Turner was still the head coach in San Diego with Rob Chudzinski as his Tight Ends and Assistant Head Coach. Since Rivera couldn’t hire Norv, he sniped Chudzinski from him to be his first Offensive Coordinator in Carolina. When Chud left to become the head coach in Cleveland, Rivera reached out to Norv to be his new OC, but Norv had already chosen to join Chud in Cleveland that year. Rivera decided to promote his then QB coach Mike Shula to the offensive coordinator position. The following year Chud and Norv were out in Cleveland, but Rivera stuck with Shula. That was until this year when Rivera went digging for fossils and hired 65-year-old pal Norv Turner to be his OC. When Rivera was asked about the hiring of Turner he stated:
“It matches with the philosophy that I’ve grown up in. You run the football, you’re physical as a running team, but then you take your shots with hard play action. It’s OK to throw the ball downfield and see how things unfold.”
Anytime there is a major change on a team, especially with a new offensive coordinator getting hired, I like to zoom out a little and see what the parameters of the offense might be, and what trends the new coach brings. Carolina was one of the teams I really wanted to send myself down the rabbit hole with this year and see what the Turner hire means for them. Their recent draft picks also interest me, and I wanted to see how they fit in. Here are some of the questions I attempted to solve for myself…
What has Norv Turner been up to all these years?
As a Coryell disciple, Norv Turner devises his gameplans around a power running, play action passes, and verticle routes in the passing game. The target distribution for his offenses have averaged around 50-52% going to the Wide Receivers, except for his years as the San Diego head coach where the WR distribution was in the low and mid-40% range. The Running Backs and Tight Ends have seen their distribution of opportunity range between 18-25%. It’s worth noting that Turner’s TEs have seen a 4% spike in usage over the last 10 years with the likes of Antonio Gates and Kyle Rudolph creating mismatches against LBs and safeties.
|Norv Turner – All Years||Norv – Last 10 Years|
One thing that concerns me about Norv Turner’s offense is they tend to crawl at a snail’s pace. The average number of plays Turner lead offenses have run during his last 10 years (2007-2016) is 962. That is 55 less than the league average over the same period, or nearly a whole game worth of plays less per year. For perspective, the NFL average during that time frame is 1017 plays or 63.6 plays per game.
Turner has averaged a pass-ratio of 55% over that 10 year period, which is 1% above the league average. Turner’s QB1 has averaged 7.6 YPA over the last 10 years, and 7.2 over his entire career. That’s a really solid YPA but is also driven by some great years from Philip Rivers. Cam Newton is no slouch though, posting a career YPA of 7.3. However, Newton’s YPA has been below 7.0 each of the last two seasons, and with the way the Panthers are building, it doesn’t seem likely to rise much, if at all. Carolina will still take their shots downfield this year, but with Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore likely to be high priority targets to get Cam’s completion percentage up, it seems Cam’s YPA will be in their hands (or feet) with their ability to run after the catch and accrue more yards.
Can Cam run this offense?
Cam Newton was the league MVP just two seasons ago running a similar style of offense under Mike Shula. Last year, Cam finished 28th in completion percentage at 59.1% and threw the 2nd most INTs behind rookie Deshone Kizer. In addition, his QB rating and YPA fell to 24th and 23rd in the league. This summer Norv Turner has said Cam’s footwork and mechanics have improved from what he saw on tape. Norv also has a plan to get Cam Newton’s completion percentage up to at least 65 percent by working more high percentages passes into the offense. This will be a welcome addition to Cam’s game, since he has never reached that level of completion percentage, and has been below 60% the last 4 years in a row. Cam was able to reach 65% or better in three consecutive games last year against New Orleans, New England, and Detroit. In two other games, Cam eclipsed a 64% completion rate. According to NFL Next Gen stats indicates Cam has improved his completion percentage in the short areas of the field from 2016 to 2017, which is progress. Unfortunately, his downfield accuracy has suffered. In order for the Coryell offense to work, the deep game needs to be a threat. Scott Barrett wrote an article for ProFootballFocus.com about the league’s best deep ball passers. In this article, Cam Newton finished in second to last place last year in the differential between 2017 compared to the rest of his career. Norv Turner has a long history of working with great QBs and maximizing their talent, so this could be a bounce-back year for Cam in this facet of his game.
There is something else that separates Cam from the other QBs Norv has been associated with, and that is his mobility. Norv has typically worked with pocket passers, but there have been a few sprinkles of mobile QBs in there. Turner helped Alex Smith dig his way out of his abysmal rookie season to look like a QB that had potential to exist in the NFL. He mentioned he emulated a bit of what Carolina was doing with Cam to maximize Bridgewater’s talents in Minnesota. This is encouraging to see Turner has been willing to work with the skills that make a QB special in the past. What will be interesting to see is how he utilizes a QB that has averaged 118 rushing attempts and 21 red zone carries per year during his career.
Which players have the best path to success here?
Given the pieces Carolina has in place, their short passing game should be firing on all cylinders with Christian McCaffrey and rookie D.J. Moore working those routes. According to @MattHarmon_BYB‘s Reception Perception data, D.J. Moore had a success rate of 80% or more on the first four routes of the route tree, which are high percentage routes. In the first preseason game Moore participated in, he showed the ability to adjust to a deep ball in the air and showcased his shifty moves and good balance on the shorter routes.
With Rivera penciling in McCaffrey for 25-30 touches a game, and Norv Turner co-signing it, we can expect him to be the focal point of this offense. He checks off a lot of boxes between what Norv has built offenses around in the past and what the Panthers are trying to do now with getting Cam to throw more high percentage passes. While it seems doubtful CMC clears 400 touches this year, the mindset is there to ride him until the wheels fall off. According to another Scott Barrett PFF article about passer rating by position targeted, Cam Newton was most successful throwing to his RBs and TEs. That would seem to indicate if Turner is playing to Cam’s strengths, McCaffrey and Olsen will be the primary beneficiaries.
Greg Olsen lost most of his 2017 season to injury, so Cam’s rating when throwing to the TE position last year was largely based on what he did throwing to Ed Dickson. With Olsen being a better athlete than Dickson and assuming he is fully healthy and hasn’t lost anything, then that success should continue. Olsen is annually among the league leaders in Average Depth of Target for the TE position, so this is where I suspect a lot of the deep passes the Coryell offense relies on will go. Olsen has also been in the top 25 in red zone targets from 2014-2016, so he should see his share of TD opportunities. He’s someone to pay attention to during preseason games. If he looks healthy, he should be a top 5-7 fantasy TE this year. My only concern here is Cam’s scattershot accuracy on those throws to the shallow-to-mid-field areas. He missed Olsen twice on those throws in the first preseason game.
Devin Funchess is supposed to play the Vincent Jackson, Josh Gordon, Irvin Fryar, slash Michael Irvin role in this offense. This sounds great considering the type of careers some of those guys have had. However, a deeper dive into the data indicates Funchess is going to have to be very efficient, as the WR1 in Norv’s offense has only seen 9 or more targets twice in Turner’s 26 years of coaching. [NOTE: Turner’s first year coordinating in 1991 did not have target data tracked, so only 25 years of data are available]. With McCaffrey and Olson likely to command the top two priorities in target pecking order, there doesn’t appear to be a chance Funchess can break through and be that 3rd guy to reach that plateau. His current ADP of 6th to 7th round in PPR formats seems to demonstrate most people have already factored this in. Where Funchess may be able to overcome the lack of volume may be in the Red Zone where his size can present a friendly target for Cam to put a few corner end zone shots on him. If he can grab a healthy amount of TDs, it will mask what could be a lower than ideal number of catches and yards from a team’s WR1. But are those looks really going to be there for him? In my estimation, Funchess will be option 4 in goal to go situations behind CMC, Olsen, and Cam keeping the ball and scoring himself.
The rest of the WR group doesn’t have a tangible amount of fantasy upside worth chasing. Torrey Smith has been irrelevant for three years in a row now and should be again. Curtis Samuel, Damiere Byrd, and former Turner pupil Jarius Wright are all in the mix for whatever left-over targets there will be available. After CMC, Olsen, Funchess, and Moore, there’s not going to be enough pie for these guys to eat fat.
What about C.J. Anderson?
Most people were expecting to see CAR add another runner in the draft or free agency to compliment McCaffrey and take on that power back role Stewart played for the last few years. However, nothing seemed to materialize until May when DEN released 27-year-old C.J. Anderson after he posted his first career 1,000 rushing yard season. Now in Carolina, Anderson should take on the heavy lifting inside stuff to keep McCaffrey from wearing down, but the first preseason game didn’t quite send that signal. CMC took all the first-team snaps and converted on his first red zone try for a 2-yard goal line TD. Adding to the mystery was CJA didn’t come on until the second half of the game after Cameron Artis-Payne had played his share of snaps. This could have been a seniority play with Artis-Payne being the tenured “power back” on the roster. Unfortunately for Artis-Payne, he didn’t solidify himself in that role by rushing for 1 yard on 5 carries. CJA figures to be the second back on the field next week after leading the team with 4.0 yards per carry and converting on his lone goal-line carry from 4 yards out.
The biggest challenge for CJA is going to be the offensive line being able to open holes to give him a chance. With two starters already injured, this could be a real problem for the running game and could shift more plays to CMC in the passing game. CJA also has to compete with Cam Newton for goal line carries. It is interesting to note that CJA is replacing a guy that has had a pretty solid run as a red zone back in Jonathan Stewart who received an above average share of red zone carries compared to his peers even with Cam back there taking his share of the action.
What’s the bottom line here?
With Turner in town, there’s not likely to be a high number of plays available in Carolina to make more than a few guys fantasy relevant. McCaffrey appears to be the focal point of this offense and is a fine pick at his current 2nd round ADP, especially in full PPR. Olsen seems a little risky at his early 6th round ADP, but I’m going to grab a few shares based on what other prolific TEs have done in Turner’s offense. Funchess is hard to buy at the same ADP as Olsen, and there are other WRs in that range I’d rather bet on like Corey Davis or Chris Hogan.
Cam has been a top 8 fantasy QB every year except for his disastrous 2016 season and should keep that top 5-8 QB status again this year. With everyone playing QB chicken and trying to out-wait each other on taking them this year, I don’t mind taking Cam in the 8th or 9th round when my roster looks ready for a QB. His rushing stats alone make him a great floor play with the potential for huge spike weeks. C.J. Anderson used to seem like a solid pick in the 8th or 9th round, but I might lay off drafting him for another week to make sure he’s still draftable in the role it seems he was signed to fulfill. D.J. Moore seems to go higher than I am looking for, so I’m pretty underweight on him. I’ll start paying “Moore” attention to him in upcoming drafts to see if I can’t grab a few shares at his 11th round ADP in case he has another solid outing next week and that ADP rises and begins to outweigh the upside. The Panthers defense is usually pretty reliable, but may be a better real-life defense than fantasy asset this year. In leagues where you need to carry a kicker, I suppose Gano is a good one to pick if you have to. I play in leagues where we draft offline and will not take a kicker until I add one via waivers right before the season, and I suspect Gano would already be on a roster then.
Thanks for reading