Commentary

Will Newton repeat 2011 success?

Updated: July 13, 2012, 9:05 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

I remember sitting around in the ESPN cafeteria early in 2011 pondering the NFL draft. My colleagues and I had recently seen Jon Gruden's QB Camp featuring Cam Newton, who didn't exactly cover himself in glory on that program. Yet the Carolina Panthers were still believed to be locked in on Newton -- a Heisman winner who had the stench of collegiate scandal on him -- for the No. 1 overall pick.

I led the chorus: There was no question Newton had athletic talent to burn, but he had never run anything approximating a pro-style offense, had never really made a pro-level read, didn't understand complicated football terminology and had just one season of major college football starting experience. I said what many around our table were thinking. Had there ever been a No. 1 pick that so many people were so utterly convinced would be a bust?

Whoops. My bad.

The rest is NFL history. Newton became the first rookie to throw for 400-plus yards in his first pro start. His 854 passing yards through two games were the most amassed by any quarterback in league history, though that record was broken the same day by Tom Brady. By season's end, he became the first rookie to throw for 4,000 yards and broke the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 14 (a record, held by Steve Grogan, that had stood for 35 years).

In fantasy football, Newton wound up with the same point total as Tom Brady, which tied him for third among all players behind only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

If you were smart enough to draft Newton last year or, more likely, add him from the waiver wire after Week 1, your team was probably pretty good. It was the best fantasy season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history, and there's an argument to be made that it was one of the best by a rookie at any position. Historically speaking, I'd put Eric Dickerson circa 1983 at the top of the list -- 2,212 yards from scrimmage and 20 total TDs -- with Barry Sanders ('89), Fred Taylor ('98), Randy Moss ('98) and Clinton Portis ('02) in contention with Newton.

Now we have to decide what to do with Newton in 2012. After all, ESPN's Tim Hasselbeck made this argument to me earlier this week: While Brady and Brees are on the back nine, Newton is 23 years old. Can we really project a downturn for a guy who showed such unprecedented promise? Maybe he is just a different kind of player, one to whom conventional wisdom might not apply. Why shouldn't fantasy owners consider Newton with their first-round draft pick?

I'll take Tim's thoughts to their logical extension: If big improvement is in the offing, can't you make an argument for Newton at No. 1 overall?

That's what I'm here to figure out. If Newton shows major improvement on his historic 2011 season, he probably should be the No. 1 pick in fantasy drafts this year. But there's tons and tons of risk. What fantasy owners should do with Newton is probably their biggest, most interesting, most tantalizing question for 2012. I'm not sure where my conclusions will end up, so let's parse the data together and gauge the likelihood of a repeat performance, or better.

General rushing touchdown repeatability

I may rightly flagellate myself for whiffing on Big Cam last season, but one of my major preseason analysis pieces wound up looking pretty smart. I dug into the 2011 prospects of Michael Vick and concluded that he wasn't worth a first-round draft pick. Yes, a major component of that analysis was Vick's injury-prone career, but I also researched the likelihood that Vick's nine rushing touchdowns in 2010 would repeat in 2011 and noted that history taught us such a repeat would be exceedingly unlikely. Vick wound up with only one rushing score.

The foundation of that analysis was this chart:

Quarterbacks who had six touchdowns or more over the past 34 seasons averaged 2.1 touchdowns in their follow-up campaigns. Quarterbacks who had seven touchdowns or more averaged 2.5. Those who had eight touchdowns or more averaged 2.1. Perhaps most damning of all: Just last season, Tim Tebow became the first QB to ever rush for at least six TDs in consecutive seasons. Before then, no QB who'd rushed for six TDs or more had ever followed up with more than five.

It's fair to contend that Newton's prospects for being a first-round (or even No. 1 overall) fantasy pick hinge on whether he can come close to his 14 touchdowns of 2011. (I'll focus on whether Newton might be an exception to this historical rule in a moment.) After all, compare how Newton's fantasy points broke down last season to some other notable quarterbacks:

Newton is a more accomplished passer than Tebow, but seeing them so close in their percentage of fantasy points that came from rushing last season should give us pause. I'm receptive to the idea that Newton's passing could improve in his sophomore campaign (more on that in a moment), but it seems that we need Newton's rushing points to stay hearty for him to be worthy of first-round consideration. Lower his rushing touchdowns to five last season, and he still would have wound up as fantasy's No. 5 quarterback, but his VBD rank would have dropped from No. 6 (i.e., worthy of a first-round pick) to No. 14 (i.e., not worthy of a first-round pick).

But is Cam the exception to the QB rushing rule?

Quantifying Newton's beastliness

Comparing Newton to Vick isn't fair to either man. Vick is a normal-sized human being (6-foot, 215 pounds) with shiftiness that has never been matched at the quarterback position. Newton is 6-5 and 248 pounds' worth of linebacker-esque strength. If we look at the above list of signal-callers who registered the most single-season rushing touchdowns, there aren't too many guys who look like Big Cam. McNair weighed 235 pounds but was three inches shorter. McNabb is 240 pounds but is 6-2. Vince Young is the same height but 18 pounds lighter. Weinke was actually rather close (6-4, 232 pounds), but suffice to say he wasn't the athlete Newton is.

No, the only obvious comparative is Daunte Culpepper at 6-4, 264 pounds. In his day, Culpepper was a tantalizing threat, with 22 rushing scores from 2002-04, though Newton already has more 700-yard rushing seasons than Culpepper did in his entire career.

Even in his heyday, the Minnesota Vikings never used Culpepper quite the way the Panthers used Newton last season. Only six of Culpepper's 22 scores in that three-year window came from inside an opponent's 2-yard line. Last season, seven of Newton's 14 touchdowns came from inside the 2, the most ever for a QB. Culpepper had at least a few running backs -- Robert Smith and Moe Williams come to mind -- whom Vikings coaches used more frequently in goal-line situations. Meanwhile, for much of 2011, Newton was his own goal-line back. Of the Panthers' 20 carries from inside an opponent's 2, Newton had 11 and converted on seven, while Jonathan Stewart was 3-for-8 and DeAngelo Williams was 1-for-1. (The Panthers passed twice in this situation, both times for touchdowns.)

Before we contend that Carolina changed this strategy as the season progressed, we should realize that while, yes, Newton didn't have a rushing touchdown in any of the Panthers' final four games, nobody on the team had a carry from inside the 2 in that final month. I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that Newton wasn't still his team's goal-line back in December.

I believe that Newton was the Panthers' 2011 short-yardage runner in a way Culpepper never quite was for the 2002-04 Vikings, but this doesn't mean there haven't been other quarterbacks who saw the stars align to have them score many short touchdowns in a single season. Here are the biggest quarterbacks "vulture" seasons in the 16-game era:

Again, history doesn't appear to be on Newton's side. No quarterback who scored five or more touchdowns from inside an opponent's 2 in one season managed more than two the next. Yes, I emphasize, Newton is bigger than all these players except Culpepper, and his team used him more as a primary short-yardage runner than almost any quarterback in memory, at least for last season. But neither Stewart nor Williams is chopped liver, and the Panthers have added Mike Tolbert, a player who scored 12 times from inside an opponent's 2 in the past two seasons combined while playing for the San Diego Chargers.

All this is to say nothing of how likely or unlikely it is than an NFL offense happens to get stopped so close to an opponent's goal line. After running only seven plays from inside an opponent's 2 in 2010, the Panthers ran 22 last year. Before you attribute this to Newton injecting life into the offense, check out these squads:

That's a whole lot of variability. And get this: In 2011, 20 out of 32 teams saw their plays run from inside an opponent's 2 increase or decrease by at least 40 percent from the previous season. An offense getting close-in snaps isn't completely random, but it sure seems close. In other words, there's a significant chance that being the Panthers' goal-line back might not be as valuable in 2012 as he was in '11.

Rushing yards are safer

In summary, despite Newton's size and the Panthers' willingness to give him the rock on the goal line last season, I have severe doubts that Newton will even approach double-digit rushing touchdowns. It could happen, but it would buck an awful lot of NFL history. The good news, however, is that while I think Newton's ceiling might be lower than it looked last season, I believe his floor is safer than you might think. That's because of his rushing yards.

If history teaches us that quarterback rushing touchdowns and close-in rushing touchdowns are difficult to repeat, it shows us that running quarterbacks continue to run:

On average, the quarterbacks who rushed for 500-plus yards since 1978 have amassed 499 rushing yards the following season. Heck, Newton just submitted the fifth-greatest rushing season by a quarterback in the modern era. While I guess in a worst-case scenario I can see him dropping a bit in rush yards, a decrease below 500 seems unlikely. That's at least 50 juicy fantasy points sitting on the table for potential owners in ESPN standard scoring. Vick should be in about the same neighborhood, but that's a sizable advantage over every other signal-caller. That's at least 12 passing touchdowns Newton can fall behind his position mates and still be comparable.

Is it all about the passing?

As we've seen, the likeliest scenario is that Newton's rushing touchdowns will abate -- but not disappear with a Vick-ian fizzle -- while his rushing yards remain steady. But is Cam ready to produce another 4,000-yard passing season? I tend to think not.

It's not fair to remove the first two games of Newton's NFL career, but it is fair to ask why things slowed down so much thereafter. Newton exceeded 300 yards passing in one more game and not at all in the season's final 12 contests. After the first four games of 2011, Newton averaged 222 yards passing. In that span, he threw 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Spread that passing performance out over an entire season, bump Newton down to five rushing touchdowns and give him 500 yards rushing and he goes from averaging 22 fantasy points per game to around 17. That still makes him a fantasy starter, but it takes him completely out of the mix for the first round of your draft. Heck, it probably knocks him to the late second or early third.

There are several reasons why this bleak passing outlook might not happen. Newton will have his first full NFL training camp. He'll be working with his Panthers coaches for a second season. He'll have promising third-year wideout Brandon LaFell, hopefully emerging opposite Steve Smith, and David Gettis returning from a torn ACL.

Also, there's Newton's 2011 game tape. He isn't some gimmick player who is always looking to run. I do think he had a proclivity to scramble later in the season, as his protection tended to worsen, but it's unfair to call him Tebow-esque. Not only does Newton have a cannon for an arm, but he is also willing to stand tall in the pocket and zing the ball into tight windows. No objective observer who watched him at Auburn would have believed he could transition as quickly as he did, but the fact is Newton looked like an NFL quarterback right away, which bodes well for continued improvement.

So why did his passing numbers slow after the season's first month? He threw some bad interceptions in key moments, and I felt the Panthers staff decided to rein him in. Through four games, Newton's average yards-at-the-catch (i.e., how far down the field his target is when he catches the ball) was 8.4, a rate which would have led the NFL. After those four contests, his average Y@C was 6.0, which would have tied him for 26th.

Also, the Panthers simply threw less, as Newton attempted a whopping average of 40.8 passes in a few shootouts early and averaged a more modest 29.5 attempts in the 12 games thereafter. I can't emphasize this enough: Last season, 29.5 attempts per game would have ranked 30th in the league.

Here are my deepest worries about Newton for 2012. Amid all the justifiable hype and reverence, Newton plays for a coaching staff that would just as soon pound opponents into submission as anything else. There's a reason Stewart, Williams and Tolbert are on this roster. The game plans we saw after Week 4 last season are pretty close to what coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would like to run in 2012. They know Newton's arm affords them the opportunity to take shots, but in today's NFL, 30 attempts per game qualifies as conservative.

At 30 attempts per game, to get to 4,000 pass yards for the season Newton would have to average 8.3 yards per attempt, which would easily be top five. However, from Week 5 forward in 2011, he averaged 7.5 YPA, which would put him around 15th. Unless big plays are as plentiful as they were in Weeks 1 through 4 last season, or unless I'm wrong and Newton is set to become a higher-volume thrower than I expect, Newton's ceiling as a passer, at least yardage-wise, is close to 2011's output, and he is likely to come in under that number.

Conclusion

A season of 3,500 yards passing, 20 TDs, 15 INTs, 500 yards rushing and five rushing TDs would make Newton a no-doubt fantasy starter and probably close to a top-five fantasy quarterback. It just wouldn't warrant his selection in the first round of fantasy drafts (to say nothing of being No. 1 overall). The great thing about Newton is that I believe the above stat line is close to his floor, and heaven knows he has enough raw ability to exceed these numbers by leaps and bounds.

If there's a reason to take the chance on Newton with a late first-rounder, that's probably it: upside. History tells us he is not likely to produce another outlier season, but he wasn't supposed to be as good as he was in 2011 either. Nobody has ever put up numbers like Newton's at such a tender age. He may be more exception than rule, a possibility I'm not completely willing to discount.

There's also one final dynamic at play. To borrow a name from earlier in this article, it's the Daunte Culpepper Factor. In many ways, Culpepper is Newton's closest forebear, and as an NFL player, he was invincible right up until the point when he wasn't. No matter how big you are as a ball carrier in pro football, there's always someone who will cut you down to size. Newton can steamroll all the defensive players he wants, but there will assuredly come a time when he gets himself blindsided or undercut, and that doesn't always go well. Ask Culpepper. The guy seemed unstoppable until Chris Gamble hit his knees in 2005 and changed his career. Because of his playing style, Newton is probably as vulnerable to injury as any quarterback in the league, save maybe Vick.

Before doing any of this analysis, I put Newton fifth on my QB list and 22nd overall. Now I'm tempted to bump him up in my overall ranks to 16th or 17th, making him a mid-to-late second-round pick in 10-team leagues, simply because I'm so impressed by his lack of evident statistical downside. Even at 3,500 passing yards, he should be a no-brainer fantasy starter who can score rushing TDs in bunches. But if there's one storm cloud that could brew for Newton, it's the injuries.