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Player Spotlight: Cam Newton

A detailed look at Cam Newton's fantasy prospects for 2013

Let's not bury the lead here: Cam Newton has had a historically productive start to his career. No one would disagree with that. I do think it's important to put that production into some sort of historical context, though. Cam Newton's 2012 season was the 6th best fantasy season by a 1st or 2nd year quarterback in fantasy history. Three of the five quarterbacks who bettered Newton played in an elite offense featuring two Hall-of-Fame-caliber receivers and a pro bowl running back. Kurt Warner was throwing to Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce while handing off to Marshall Faulk. Jeff Garcia was throwing to Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice while handing off to Charlie Garner. Daunte Culpepper was throwing to Randy Moss and Cris Carter while handing off to Robert Smith. Warner and Garcia also weren't true sophomores, as each had spent several years in a rival league honing their skills. The fourth quarterback to better Newton's 2012 campaign was Dan Marino, with his remarkable 5,000 yard sophomore season. The fifth quarterback to better Cam Newton's 2012 campaign was… Cam Newton, with his 2011 rookie year.

This is some pretty rarefied company for a young signal caller to keep. Cam Newton has twice posted fantasy totals that typically require an all-star supporting cast featuring multiple Hall of Famers. In fact, Cam Newton's rookie season ranks as the seventh best fantasy season of all time, regardless of player age or experience. Cam Newton owns two of the top 25 fantasy seasons in history, which is as many as Steve Young or Dan Marino, and more than Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, or Kurt Warner. Over the last two seasons, only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady have scored more fantasy points than Cam Newton. Those three players are also the only players in history to ever have more fantasy points over any two-year span than Newton had over the last two. Tom Brady has had 11 pairs of seasons as a starter, Drew Brees has 10, and Aaron Rodgers has 4, but only one pair from each player managed to eclipse Cam Newton's only two seasons in the league.

If I'm belaboring this point, it's only because I think saying Cam Newton had perhaps the best start to his career in history undersells his accomplishment. Cam Newton hasn't merely played historically well for a young starting QB, he's played historically well, full stop. His two short seasons in the league already ranks among the greatest two-season stretches any quarterback has ever produced. He's done it despite being viewed by many as a project coming into the league, after starting just one season at the major-college level. He's done it with his legs, averaging 45 yards per game and scoring touchdowns at a record-breaking pace. He's done it with his arm, where his passing yards per game, his yards per attempt, and his net yards per attempt all rank among the top 10 of all time. He's done it despite taking the reigns of a 2-14 team that ranked dead last in the league in offense the year before he arrived. He has revived the career of Steve Smith, who had just 554 receiving yards the year before Newton arrived and who has 2,568 receiving yards in the two years since.

And yet, despite a young career which should be overflowing with superlatives, Cam Newton inspires a surprising degree of skepticism. Many people simply don't find him likable, especially after a college career marred by controversy and a pre-draft process where he described himself as an entertainer and an icon. A small cottage industry has sprung up around analyzing Newton's body language, and Newton's own leading receiver has accused him in the media of sulking. Some question whether his statistics are artificially inflated. Some point to his reliance on rushing numbers and question their reliability, or consider him an enhanced risk for injury. Some will point to his 13-19 career record and question whether he's a winner who has what it takes to succeed long term. For some, the slow start to the 2012 campaign weighs much more heavily than the torrid finish. In his short time in the league, Cam Newton has managed to become one of its biggest lightning rods.

I would propose that all of these criticisms of Newton are hardly unique. In fact, I would note the similarities between Newton and Daunte Culpepper. Both players had unbelievable starts to their career, becoming fantasy forces based largely on the strength of their legs. Both quarterbacks were generally seen as better fantasy players than NFL players. Ultimately, Daunte Culpepper shredded his knee and we never got to learn for sure how good he could have been without Randy Moss. Prior to that, though, Culpepper was an untouchable fantasy quarterback. From 2000-2004, Culpepper finished as the 1st or 2nd best fantasy QB four times, and was on pace to make it five straight before an injury cut short his 2001 campaign. Culpepper's rushing numbers proved very sustainable, and the combination of his rushing and passing provided a very potent fantasy cocktail. Regardless of what you think of him as a person or a player, Cam Newton possesses all of the traits necessary to continue his historic production in his third season.

Now, some might worry that Newton's rookie season remains a high-water mark, and that Newton has regressed. Superficially, it's a plausible argument- after all, Cam Newton saw a decline in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and rushing touchdowns between years one and two. Looking more closely at the stats quickly dispels this notion, as Cam Newton's efficiency metrics were up across the board. He improved his TD:INT ratio, his passing yards per attempt, his rushing yards per attempt, and his quarterback rating. A slow start to the season obscured the fact that Newton made positive strides between his first and second year, and he should be expected to continue those strides in year three.

POSITIVES

  • Newton's dominance to begin his career is wholly unprecedented in the annals of the NFL.
  • Far from a one-trick pony, Newton has set records both passing and rushing.
  • A large percentage of Newton's production comes on the ground, which is rewarded much more heavily in most scoring systems.
  • Newton has the ideal size (6'5") and bulk (248 pounds) to handle the workload; he has appeared on the injury report just three times, never as worse than probable.

NEGATIVES

  • Newton plays in a worse offense with a worse supporting cast than the other top QB options.
  • Newton's running exposes him to more hits over the course of the year.
  • Newton's dominance has coincided with a league-wide passing explosion, which has devalued all QBs against their peers.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Cam Newton's current ADP has him as the 5th quarterback off the board, behind the future-Hall-of-Fame quartet of Rodgers, Brees, Manning, and Brady. While it's hard to blame anyone who might prefer the comfort and security of one of those names, Newton's production to date proves he deserves consideration alongside any of them. The depth at quarterback this year creates a strong argument for waiting at the position, but if you want an elite quarterback, Newton presents tremendous value as the last of them off the board.


OTHER VIEWPOINTS

Michael Fabiano from NFL.com examines Newton's strength of schedule

Newton (4th), who has finished in the top four in fantasy points in each of his first two NFL seasons, will have a nice advantage in 2013 based on FPA. The talented field general will play in 11 games against opponents that surrendered 16-plus fantasy points to the position in 2012, including matchups versus the Saints (2), Buccaneers (2), Vikings and Bills.

Brad Pinkerton of Sporting News Fantasy profiles Newton

Even though he's known as a run-first QB, Newton actually led the NFL with an average of 13.8 yards per completion last season. And even though he ranked just 19th in passing attempts and 22nd in completions (both of which helped boost that per-catch average), he also tied for fourth with 35 pass plays of 25-plus yards. That's why we're high on Newton as a dangerous, big-play passer, especially if Carolina finds that No. 2 wideout.

C.D. Carter of the Sports Jerks Network addresses rumors that Carolina is moving away from the read-option

Newton, in the first half of the 2012 season that saw him finish as the 12th highest scoring signal caller – a whole two points ahead of Andy Dalton – rushed an average of five times a game on designed runs. It was after the Panthers’ Week 7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that Panthers coaches and beat writers trumpeted a marked shift away from the read-option and toward a more conventional offense — presumably one without a glut of designed runs for Newton.

Two-thirds of the Panthers’ running plays had stemmed from the read-option going into their Week 8 tilt against the Chicago Bears. (See the 3:20 mark of this highlight reel to see just how effective Newton can be in the read-option scheme)

It’s not entirely clear if that call for a move away from the read-option scheme ever took hold though. Newton’s designed rushes dropped from five per game in Weeks 1-7 to 4.8 in Weeks 8-17.


CAM NEWTON PROJECTIONS

 COMPATTPYDPTDINTRSHYDRSHTD
Adam Harstad 306 510 3975 22 12 600 6
David Dodds 277 476 3527 20 14 693 8

 



More from Adam Harstad:

Dynasty, in Theory: Living and Dying by the Trade - October 23
Dynasty, in Practice: Harvin Runs a Jet Sweep - October 18
Dynasty, in Theory: A Taxonomy of Belief - October 16
Dynasty, in Practice: Playing to Win the Game - October 11
Dynasty, in Theory: Skill, Luck, and Other Musings - October 9
Dynasty, in Practice: Revisiting Preseason Expectations - October 3
Dynasty, in Theory: Hyperbolic Discounting - October 1
Dynasty, in Practice: Irrational Exuberance - September 26
Dynasty, in Theory: The Road Not Taken - September 24
Dynasty, in Practice: Valuing in the Face of Uncertainty - September 19