Last updated: September 7th at 2:51am ET.
Team Totals: Rams 26.5, Panthers 23.5
Rams-Panthers is tied for Week 1’s fourth-highest-totaled game (50.0) with Todd Gurley as the hottest-button topic on either side after Los Angeles’ offensive engine managed chronological touch counts of 15 > 25 > 14 > 22 > 18 > 5 > 11 over his last seven appearances, perhaps forewarning of similar usage ups and downs throughout 2019 due to “an arthritic component” in his knee. But if there were ever a time to trust Gurley, that time is now before the wear and tear of the season sets in. Public risk aversion will surely drop Gurley’s DFS ownership rate, and neither two-down-grinder backup Malcolm Brown nor third-round rookie Darrell Henderson has a defined role yet. … Perhaps the Rams’ biggest offensive concern is on the interior, where they’re replacing stalwart LG Rodger Saffold and C John Sullivan with Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen, who have combined to play 110 career offensive snaps. Neither played a down this preseason. Along with 2018 pass-protection liability RG Austin Blythe, they’ll try keep middle pressure off Jared Goff versus imposing DTs Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, and Dontari Poe in a matchup favoring Carolina. The Panthers’ edge rush also looks much stronger after stealing Florida State athletic freak Brian Burns at the 16th overall pick to book end underrated OLB Mario Addison, who quietly has 20 sacks over the past two seasons. Goff was the most pressure-sensitive quarterback in the league in 2018, his passer rating nose diving from No. 4 among 38 qualifiers when kept clean to 28th under duress. Goff’s passer rating also sank from 116.7 at home to 82.7 on the road. … I actually like the Panthers to win this game outright but would prefer taking their first-half side from a sports-betting perspective after the Rams declined to play their starters at all this preseason. I’m expecting some early rust.
But in addition to this game’s high-scoring potential, there are ample reasons to keep the QB1 light on for Goff. Ron Rivera’s 2018 Panthers ran zone coverage at the NFL’s seventh-highest rate, and Sports Info Solutions charted Brandin Cooks with the league’s fourth-most yards per target against zone. His catch rate also rose from 77% to 86% in zone looks. Coming off his career-high 1,204 yards, Cooks is a confident WR2 with WR1 upside. … My 2019 concern with Cooper Kupp has always been a slow start after last November’s ACL tear, but recovery reports couldn’t have been more glowing, and Kupp was on pace for a league-winning 96/1,402/16 receiving line five games into 2018, before injuries took their toll. With Panthers slot-corner duties up in the air between Ross Cockrell, Javien Elliott, and others, Kupp’s on-paper matchup is the best in Los Angeles’ wideout corps. … Robert Woods was last year’s biggest beneficiary of Kupp’s absence, seeing his slot snaps spike. Woods has averaged 0.75 fewer targets per game with Kupp in the lineup over the last two seasons and projects to draw Panthers top CB James Bradberry for most of this one. Woods should hardly be panic benched in fantasy leagues, but I prefer Cooks and Kupp’s chances of having a big Week 1. … Although reports from Rams camp had Sean McVay tinkering with more two-tight end 12-personnel looks, this is a believe-it-when-you-see-it situation. No team in the league has run more three-receiver 11 personnel than Los Angeles since McVay took over as head coach. Gerald Everett is just a Dynasty and tight end-premium-league stash until further notice.
After tweaking his foot in Carolina’s third preseason game, Cam Newton practiced fully this week and will start against the Rams, who last year allowed the NFL’s 11th-most QB rushing yards per game (25.0) and got weaker up front by losing Ndamukong Suh (Bucs) and ILBs Mark Barron (Steelers) and Micah Kiser (torn pec). They’ve resorted to 2018 sixth-rounder Sebastian Joseph-Day at nose tackle, washed-up Clay Matthews as a starter on the edge, and STer Bryce Hager as a first-team inside linebacker. The Rams’ secondary remains strong, but Carolina’s low-aDOT passing game matches up advantageously by funneling short passes to after-catch mavens Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel. Even if Newton’s designed runs are scaled back due to the foot, he is primed to start fast against one of the league’s softest Weeks 1-4 quarterback slates (Rams > Bucs > Cardinals > Texans). … Whereas the Rams’ front-seven personnel got even weaker after finishing 27th in run-defense DVOA, the Panthers’ offensive line got stronger by replacing liability C Ryan Kalil with stud Matt Paradis and returning butt-kicking run-blocker LT Daryl Williams from a knee injury. On the ground and in the air, expect McCaffrey to eat.
Moore and Samuel both began 2018 playing in rotations, emerged as near-full-time receivers as the season progressed, and enter 2019 as virtual locks to rarely come off the field. Moore led the entire NFL in yards after catch per reception (7.9) as a rookie and is expected to play the “Michael Irvin” X role under ex-Cowboys OC Norv Turner as the favorite to lead Carolina in targets. I wouldn’t overthink whether Moore might match up with Marcus Peters or Aqib Talib. Just start him as a WR2 every week. … Panthers camp sensation Samuel is primed for third-year liftoff as the Alvin Harper to Moore’s Irvin, likely running more deep routes but also mixing in manufactured touches after Samuel parlayed eight carries into 84 yards and two touchdowns last season and logged a dynamic 172/1,286/15 (7.5 YPC) career rushing line in three years at Ohio State. Last year’s Rams allowed an NFC-high 14 completions of 40-plus yards. Perhaps Samuel will be less consistent than Moore, but I love him as a WR3 play who will mix in spiked weeks. … 34-year-old Greg Olsen fractured his foot in September of 2017, returned that November to re-break the foot, broke the foot again last Week 1, then tore his plantar fascia in December. Nevertheless, all signs point to Olsen maintaining a featured role after sophomore TE Ian Thomas endured an injury-riddled August, failing to force a timeshare. Olsen is an underrated TE1 streamer; last year’s Rams allowed the NFL’s fourth-most yards per game to tight ends.
Score Prediction: Panthers 28, Rams 24