By: Justin Lynch
How good is Cam Newton? And how good can he be?
Cam Newton is undeniably a spectacular talent. His arm strength and mobility highlight his game, combined with his ability to extend plays and make throws outside of the pocket. Cam Newton is considered by many to be a top-10 QB in the NFL today, but the numbers do not seem to back that up. Newton has made strides over the course of his career, but he has seemed to plateau in his progression as a quarterback, and questions have risen about how high his ceiling might be. Newton signed an extension with Carolina this offseason, giving him five more years (and about $100 million) at the helm of the Panthers offense. The Panthers need Newton to turn the corner and vault himself into to upper echelon of quarterbacks, but will he?
After coming out of nowhere to win the Heisman and lead Auburn to a national championship, Cam Newton was drafted first overall by the Panthers in 2011. He headlined a draft class widely viewed as one of the best ever, with 12 of the top 16 players drafted making a pro bowl within their first four seasons.
Newton came out firing as a rookie, throwing for 854 yards and five total touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) over his first two games, a rookie record. Newton cooled off the rest of the season, with only one more game over 300 yards passing. Though Newton couldn’t keep it up through the air, he worked wonders on the ground. He rushed for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns, good enough for second-best in the NFL. He started all 16 games, threw for over 4000 yards (10th in the league), and earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Newton took the league by storm and seemed poised to be a top-tier QB for the next decade.
Newton’s started his sophomore campaign in Tampa, where the Bucs defeated Carolina 16-10, fueled by two bad interceptions from Newton. Cam came back strong and efficient in week two, defeating the high-powered Saints 35-27. This set the precedent for what would be an up and down season for Cam. He finished the season with six games above a 75 total QBR and five games under a 40 total QBR. In 2012, a 75.0 QBR would be good enough for fourth-best in the league, whereas a 40 QBR would have been 27 in the league.
Newton was inconsistent game-game, but he still finished with over 3800 passing yards (13th) and 19 passing touchdowns (T-21st). In the running game, Newton put up similar numbers to his rookie season in terms of yardage, and his eight rushing TD’s is nothing to scoff at, especially considering how newly-acquired Mike Tolbert ate away at Newton’s goal line carries. Newton stayed more or less even with his throwing numbers in year two, but his interceptions dropped from 17 to 12, a sign of a maturing QB. His completion percentage was down, but by a mere 2%, while his QBR and Rating each rose slightly. The Panthers as a whole mirrored his slight improvements, finishing 7-9, one game better than the previous year.
Entering his third season, Newton was poised to supplant himself among the game’s elite. Coach Ron Rivera was back despite speculation over his future with the team, and behind a great defense, the duo led the Panthers to a 12-4 record, winning the NFC South and earning a first-round bye. Newton again made strides, including being named to his first Pro-Bowl.
He threw for a career-high 24 touchdowns with 13 picks. He also took care of the ball better as a rusher, with just three fumbles. His completion percentage jumped back above 60% (61.7%) and his QBR sprung over 60 (61.1, both career-highs). Newton’s yardage again took a dip, however, throwing for about 500 yards less than the previous year.
Though these numbers were good for Newton, they amounted to him being no more than an average throwing QB. He finished 15th in yards, 15th in yards/attempt, T-12th in TD’s, 16th in rating, and 10th in QBR. As a team, the Panthers were 18th in scoring at about 23 ppg. Also, Newton’s rushing continued to decline. He rushed for 558 yards and six touchdowns in 2013, both career lows at the time. Despite this, Newton was still showing progress and he was expected to make even more strides going into the 2014 season.
In 2014, the Panthers again won the NFC South, but they did it at 7-8-1, dropping below .500 for the third time with Newton running the show. The Panthers met the Cardinals (quarterbacked by Ryan Lindley) in the divisional round and won 27-16 (because no one loses to Ryan Lindley). However, the Panthers could not get by the Seahawks the following week. Despite their playoff win, Cam Newton’s 2014 campaign raised eyebrows, due to Newton’s less-than-stellar performance.
Last season was Cam’s worst as a pro. He threw for career lows in yards (3127), yards/attempt (6.98), and touchdowns (18). He posted his worst career marks in QBR (54.4) and rating (82.1). And he fumbled nine times. However, his interceptions stayed steady at 12, though his TD/Int ratio dropped. Newton also caught the injury bug, missing two games, his only two so far as a pro. His rushing stats were down again, setting new lows in yards and touchdowns.
Compared to the rest of the league, Newton no longer seemed like the top 7-10 QB he was in 2013. His finished 20th in QBR, 26th in passer rating, 19th in expected points added (EPA), 29th in completion percentage, and 34th in adjusted yards/attempt. Newton’s saving grace his whole career had been his ability to run, but his willingness to run was now in question.
Newton will begin his fifth season come September. He is now 26 years old and $100 million richer. Newton is good enough right now to at least have moderate postseason success, however, Newton needs to progress if he wants to be good enough to be considered someone you can win a Super Bowl with.
What sets quarterbacks apart in the NFL, like the biggest stars in the NBA, is the ability to make the players around you better. Look at a list of the best receiving corps in the NFL. You’re going to see Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, and Green Bay atop most lists. One thing those teams have in common is a great quarterback. Tom Brady has made guys like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman all-pro’s. Peyton Manning made Jacob Tamme and Austin Collie quality pass-catchers. Guys like Markus Wheaton and Davante Adams are nothing more than Philly Brown, but they have Big Ben and Aaron Rodgers throwing to them, respectively.
To be considered an elite quarterback Newton needs to make his second, third, and fourth receivers viable options. Most NFL quarterbacks can get the ball to Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, but what makes Drew Brees as good as he is, is that he can make Lance Moore (now a Lion) and Robert Meachem weapons. Right now, no one is worried about Ted Ginn, Philly Brown, or Jarrett Boykin. Newton needs to make the most out of those guys if he wants to be someone who leads one of the league’s top offenses.
Newton also needs to become more consistent. He isn’t going to put up big numbers through the air, but he needs to keep the games where he throws for under 200 yards to a minimum. He also needs to become better at finishing drives with touchdowns (Carolina ranked 9th in field goal attempts). He threw for multiple touchdowns in only five games in 2014. He needs to become better at finding the end zone through the air, or at least get to a point where drives don’t stall out around the 30-yard line.
The Panthers running game has been shaky recently, but Newton himself needs to change that. If Newton proves to be a good enough passer, defenses will focus on him more, which will open up running lanes. Newton is not feared through the air like top QB’s in the league are. He is more feared because of his ability to run, and he is running less and less. Newton needs to force defenses to be worried first and foremost about him carving up their secondary, only then will the running lanes open back up.
But clearly, it isn’t all bad for Newton. He is still the big, strong QB he was coming out of the draft. He is charismatic and becoming a better leader. His arm strength is as good as anyone’s and he still has the unique ability to extend plays with his legs. He has shown growth throughout his career, and his 2014 struggles can partially be contributed to injuries, as well as it being his first season without Steve Smith (though Kelvin Benjamin was a more than adequate replacement).
Talent-wise Newton is a top 10 quarterback in the NFL. That is not the debate. Whether or not Cam Newton will ever harness his powers to make him the efficient leader that teams need is. Newton was 14th among QB’s in Win Probability Added. Despite all of his struggles, his presence on the field translates to wins at a rate better than half the guys at his position. And, besides, can you really count out a guy who can make these plays?
Every year seems to be Newton’s year, and every year he seems to leave everyone wanting more. He is oozing with potential, and is still just 26 years old. But we know what a player is by their fifth year in the NFL, especially at the quarterback position. He has proven he can play, but he has only shown flashes. Inconsistency is something that separates tier one from tier two, and Newton has shown an inability to play on same level every Sunday. Everyone claims the future of the NFL to be with Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck. People leave Newton out forgetting that he is the same age as Wilson. Or maybe they didn’t forget, but instead realize what Newton is: a great talent that will probably never develop into a top-tier QB. But you never really know with these things, and maybe 2015 will be Newton’s year...