- Newton has been a Top-6 fantasy quarterback in four of six seasons, including a dominant #1 finish in 2015
- The offensive line, while imperfect, should be improved from a season ago
- The Panthers prioritized adding offensive talent in support of Newton, including 1st (McCaffrey) and 2nd (Samuel) round rookies
- Newton is recovering from offseason (March) surgery on his throwing shoulder
- The wide receiving corps and offensive line are, by no means, proven assets
- Newton's 2015 passing statistics were the outlier, but fantasy owners seem to think otherwise
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Cam Newton entered last season as the reigning league MVP, for a good reason. He combined for 45 touchdowns while leading the Panthers to a league-best 15-1 record. Newton’s 445.5 fantasy points were the 5th most in league history, but his performance was arguably the best in history. Why such a bold statement? Because Newton’s average draft position in 2015 was QB13. He was coming off a career-worst QB17 season, and many wondered if he hit the wall. As a result, fantasy owners landed Newton late but ended up cruising to league titles because of the draft day value disparity.
Last year’s fantasy owners experienced the opposite end of the spectrum. Newton was the consensus #1 quarterback and was drafted in the early rounds. In 2-QB leagues, Newton was frequently a Top-3 overall choice. Sadly, Newton fell on hard times, and the Panthers followed suit; finishing 6-10 and in last place in the NFC South. Newton was a beaten man last year, and it showed.
- 270 completions (2nd worst of his career)
- 52.9% completion rate (easily the worst of his career)
- 6.88 yards per attempt (career-worst)
- 3.7% touchdown rate (career-worst)
- 2.7% interception rate (2nd worst)
- 90 rushing attempts (career-low)
- 4.0 yards per rush (career-worst)
- QB17 ranking (tied, career-low)
Last Year Was a Surprise, But Should It Have Been?
Most NFL pundits projected the Panthers to contend for the Super Bowl. Most fantasy analysts saw Newton as the top quarterback. The offensive line was ranked as elite, or near-elite by scouts at most major sites (including ours). Pundits projected a dominating defense. And Kelvin Benjamin was supposed to amp up a receiving corps that vastly outperformed expectations in 2015 without a bonafide star.
None of this happened as planned.
- Offensive Line – It’s odd the offensive line was projected as near-elite, in retrospect, because it wasn’t a strong unit in 2015. Cam Newton survived in spite of playing with arguably the worst tackle tandem in the NFC – Michael Oher and Mike Remmers. Last year, Michael Oher was concussed, forcing Remmers to the left side. Trai Turner, a solid guard, was forced outside and ill-suited. Turner’s move not only weakened the tackle position, but the interior took a major hit as his replacement struggled. As if that weren’t enough, All Pro center Ryan Kalil missed major time.
- Kelvin Benjamin – Benjamin missed all of 2015, making Newton’s 35 touchdowns downright shocking. While some analysts questioned Benjamin’s bonafides as a #1 receiver, no one thought his presence would be a detriment to an uninspired receiving corps. In many cases, the film said Benjamin was a liability. He was slow-footed and lacked strength at the point of attack. For a receiver his size, not winning physical battles is a disaster.
- The Defense – Carolina played with leads often in 2015 and teams were forced to throw to catch up. In spite of allowing a league-high 650 pass attempts, the Panthers held opposing teams to just 3,752 passing yards and 21 passing touchdowns. The 5.4 net yards per attempt was jaw-dropping. Somehow, the Panthers personnel department convinced themselves 2015 was a product of the scheme and not the players. That’s the only way to explain the decision to remove Josh Norman’s franchise tag late in free agency and let him leave for Washington. The result was disastrous. Carolina fell to 29th in passing yards allowed and allowed 402 points (26th).
Asking the question again, we see how things differed from 2015 to 2016, but should any of this have surprised us? The offensive line overachieved in 2015 and had no depth. The defense probably would have been solid, but they let their best cover corner leave and thought to start a rookie duo in his (and Peanut Tillman’s) place. And Kelvin Benjamin was coming off a lost season and looked out of shape in camp. Hindsight is 20-20, but it does feel like Carolina overachieved in 2015, more than underachieved in 2016.
Hot Take: 2015 Was the Outlier, Not 2016
How dare I make such a statement! Cam Newton has four QB1 finishes (4th, 4th, 6th and 1st) in six seasons. Just about everything possible went wrong last year. And Newton was injured (more on that later). Is there any justification for my bold proclamation?
Newton’s Passing Numbers:
Surprised? Don’t be. In 2015, Newton averaged 20.1 fantasy passing points per game. Every other season, including last year, are within a tight band (15.8 to 16.9). Anomaly, thy name is 2015.
Newton’s Rushing Numbers:
While Newton’s fantasy passing was within normal standards, his rushing output fell off a cliff. Last year’s 4.4 fantasy points per rush are well below his previous career low (2013), and a 43% drop from his MVP season.
The bear case against Newton was always that he relied too heavily on rushing touchdowns, and over time – for his longevity – he would need to become a better passer to offset a decline in rushing attempts. 2015 head faked us all into thinking he made the adjustment as a passer, but last year left us right back to the norm. Newton’s fantasy relevance (and variance) is tied to his ability to pile up rushing yards and touchdowns.
Reasons for Optimism?
#1 – The Offensive Line should improve
Of all last season’s maladies, the offensive line stands the best chance to reverse course. Ryan Kalil is healthy, and his presence cannot be understated. Trai Turner can return to right guard, where he has All Pro potential. Daryl Williams – the intended replacement for Remmers last season – is healthy again. He’s not a star, but he’ll be better than Turner. The only major question mark, and it’s a doozy, is left tackle. Carolina gave Matt Kalil (Ryan’s brother) a 5-year, $55 million contract with $25 million guaranteed. Kalil graded out as one of the worst tackles in the league over the last three seasons in Minnesota, so the big-time contract was a head scratcher. If Kalil can be mediocre (and for that money, he’s going to be in the lineup regardless), the other changes should make the line a neutral factor versus last year’s debacle.
#2 – An Improved Receiving Corps
The starting outside receivers – Benjamin and Devin Funchess – remain problematic. Greg Olsen remains stellar. It’s the other facets of the passing tree that look improved thanks to a pair of rookies: Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, the Panthers 1st round pick, could earn a centerpiece role quickly as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. His open-field vision and strength/speed combination should greatly enhance Newton’s yards-after-catch tally. Curtis Samuel, the team’s 2nd rounder, was also a college running back but will be converted to slot receiver. He’s a crisp route runner with sure hands, and he could present matchup nightmares for defenses who have to account for Samuel and McCaffrey running free behind the line of scrimmage. What’s missing, and it’s important, is a deep threat. Newton was bailed out in 2015 by Corey Brown and Ted Ginn on deep throws in traffic.
#3 – A Defensive Rebound
As much as 2015 was the anomaly on offense, 2016 may have been the anomaly defensively. The front seven has dominant potential, if healthy. The secondary has a lot to prove, but there are reasons for optimism. First, the rookie corners’ baptism by fire last year bodes well for improvement this year. Second, Carolina added two veteran starters in safety Mike Adams and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Neither are world beaters, but the depth is a welcome addition after last season’s dumpster fire. The fly in the ointment is Sean McDermott; who left for a head coaching job this offseason. Steve Wilks takes over, and we just don’t know yet whether he’s an upgrade, downgrade, or status quo.
Now Let’s Talk About That Shoulder
Objectively, Carolina had a lot go wrong last year. If you believe in mean regression, it stands to reason the team is due for improvement. If injuries weren’t part of the equation, I would expect the Panthers defense to normalize, the offense to improve modestly (but not match 2015), and Newton to battle for low-end QB1 value (but not come close to the #1 ranking from two seasons ago).
IF INJURIES WEREN’T PART OF THE EQUATION…BUT THEY ARE.
Newton is massive (6’5”, 248 lbs.) and could line up at defensive end without anyone taking note. His strength has been one of the most important facets of his fantasy success. Yet, he’s also taken an unprecedented pounding. He missed time early in the year with a concussion, but also played with a sore shoulder. That shoulder injury – thought minor – turned out major, as Newton underwent surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder this spring. The team and Newton have been saying all the right things. He’s going to miss OTAs, but remains “optimistic” about training camp. He threw his first passes since surgery a week ago, in a light workout. As training camp gets underway, if Newton is on the field, I’ll temper my concern. Until then, I think discretion is ABSOLUTELY the better part of valor.
Cam Newton has been a fantasy star in four of six seasons, thanks mainly to his rushing ability. His 2016 rushing totals were far below normal, and if you think the offensive line and defense bounce back, it’s not unreasonable to expect better rushing totals. However, he’s also taken an epic pounding career-to-date, and the team has to start thinking about reducing his hits. The easiest way to keep Newton healthy is to throttle back on the 100+ open field runs, and Christian McCaffrey (and returning veteran Jonathan Stewart) can handle those touches. If you can’t count on Newton’s rushing numbers improving, you can’t draft him as your fantasy starter. 2015 was the passing anomaly, not 2016. Newton isn’t the #1 fantasy quarterback. In “normal” circumstances, he’s a mid- to low-end starter; think somewhere in the QB5-QB8 range. If drafting Newton in spite of his shoulder surgery meant getting a shot at the #1 fantasy quarterback, it might be worth the risk. But that’s not his likely ceiling. I’ll pass on Newton, even if his shoulder checks out because his ADP will skyrocket. There are better values at quarterback, earlier and later than Newton’s projected draft spot.
Matt Waldman agrees Newton will need to return to his running ways to justify a high draft pick:
"The past history and future likelihood of a quarterback supporting multiple pass catchers as fantasy starters (top-36 wide receivers and top-12 tight ends) is analysis I value. Newton supported Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin in 2014 and 2016 and Olsen and Ted Ginn, Jr. in 2015. Some elite quarterbacks only support two starting fantasy options, but they often supplement their passing production with their legs. Newton delivered 539 and 636 rushing yards during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but only 359 yards in 2016. Injuries were part of the story, but Newton stated publicly that he had to run less to lengthen his career. While I like the potential of rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, it’s unlikely either delivers starting fantasy receiver production this year. If Newton has any shot at earning numbers within the top-5 or top-6 fantasy passers he’ll need to run more, and I don’t think he will."
Ryan Hester thinks the pendulum swung too far against Newton:
"After a 2015 season in which he finished as the top fantasy quarterback, Newton came crashing back down to earth to the tune of 3,272 passing yards, 353 rushing yards, and 5 rushing touchdowns. If that’s truly crashing down, then the bar is set pretty high for Newton. The only statistic that lagged behind was passing touchdowns, as he only threw 19. With just three more touchdowns, Newton is a QB1. Some regression was bound to happen after magical 2015 and the unsustainable touchdown rate that came with it. But the pendulum may have swung too far the other direction in 2016. Newton is still one of the game’s elite playmakers with his feet, which can always buoy fantasy production for quarterbacks, and his passing touchdowns should increase this season."