Cam Newton’s emergence as the Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback and possible savior has been one of the most captivating storylines of the 2011 NFL season. The electrifying Auburn product has managed to become a sensation and one of the most marketable players in the league. Although Von Miller’s once-in-a-generation talent at linebacker trumps Newton’s overall ability, there is no doubt that Panthers fans can feel safe believing in Cam. After all, he is surely the best offensive rookie in the NFL and has an even brighter future ahead of him.
However, as with most rookies who put up monster numbers, there is a certain aura of false hype surrounding Cam. For starters, contrary to the belief of many, Cam Newton isn’t anywhere near being a refined passer. He struggles with his accuracy at times, and this was evident in the Panthers most recent game against the Atlanta Falcons. He made some throws that were downright ugly, including an overthrow- one of many- that sailed a good ten yards above his target. Grossman-esque throws won’t do him any favors, and he does get confused when playing against complex defensive schemes. In the team’s first game against the Falcons, Newton made some quizzical decisions on screen passes and has made some egregious picks on these sorts of plays.
Through all his faults, there are still several key strengths which make Newton a league average quarterback already. You have to remember that Sam Bradford’s rookie season was considered an alarming success, even when he was actually a below-average passer. Cam Newton excels throwing it deep, and throwing the pigskin to one of the best deep threats- and receivers- in the league is definitely a bonus for a rookie (Steve Smith). Newton has the fourth highest Deep% in the league, which means that a good amount of his throws travel more than 15 yards in the air.
Air yards per attempt is an advanced statistic at Advanced NFL Stats, and it is a refined version of Y/A. AY/PA is a raw stat which, in essence, measures how efficient a quarterback is. Newton’s 5.4 AY/PA is 13th in the NFL for the 2011 season, and that’s really where his value is as a passer in terms of efficiency.
Although the rash decisions (16 picks) hurt his value, Cam’s ability to run with the football is simply amazing. He’s tough, fast, and extremely difficult to match up against with his uncanny speed from the quarterback position. He may actually be a slightly below-average quarterback in terms of decision making and pure passing ability, but he ends up being one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the league due to his ability to run with the football.
What really works in Newton’s favor going into the future is the nature of his struggles; it’s all experience. The mistakes he makes are common errors made by rookie quarterbacks, because his only legitimate struggles are decision-making and inconsistency. Quarterbacks steadily become more adept at making quick decisions in the pocket, and this can be seen when analyzing other quarterbacks around the league; such as Aaron Rodgers. Completion percentage is a statistic that increases with time, and it steadily increases.
Quarterback Cmp% in first full season Cmp% in 2011
Aaron Rodgers 63.6 69.6
Eli Manning 52.9 61.9
Drew Brees 60.8 70.9
Tom Brady 63.5 66.1
Although I only took a sample of four quarterbacks who are better than Newton at the moment and only used two seasons, Eli Manning’s rookie season is comparable to Newton’s as a passer. He really struggled and completed under 53% of his passes for a meager 4.6 AY/PA. For all these quarterbacks and almost every quarterback in the league, their completion percentages have increased steadily over each successive season. Some rookie QBs, unlike Newton, were timid and did not attempt many deep passes. As they became acclimated to the NFL environment, their confidence increased and, as a result, they started to attempt more deep passes. This had a negative effect on their completion percentage, but it increased their overall efficiency and production However, I used completion percentage to illustrate Newton’s likely improvement in the category he is most struggling with (aside from INTs, which will most likely trend downwards with experience).
Cam Newton may “only” be an average quarterback right now, but I projected as much from him as a rookie. He will become a polished passer- or something very closer to that- in his third season. When he does, secondaries in the NFC South better be prepared for the onslaught. Newton would be nearly unstoppable with his speed, deep ball, better decision-making, and a marked improvement in accuracy. While Newton may not match the hype right now, he will be one of the elite- or near-elite- quarterbacks within the next five years. The future certainly looks sunny with a side of Cam in Carolina, and Panthers fans now have something to really look forward to when they tune in on Sundays- and hopefully, Mondays- thanks to the emergence of Newton. And well, we always watched Panthers games; even when Jimmy Clausen was busy throwing it to the other team.