The Progression of Cam Newton

With all the tools necessary to succeed as an NFL passer, is Cam Newton putting them all together?

Since entering the league as the top pick in 2011, Cam Newton has been a polarizing figure in the eyes on NFL fans, media, and evaluators. It comes with the territory. Cam capped his college career off with a national championship and headed to the NFL for a (bigger) payday. Having been blessed with many obvious physical attributes - an arm like a rocket, the build of a tight end, and the speed of a running back - much was expected of Superman. Expectations weren’t unfounded - his combine review read like a Kenny Powers self-description.

Coming off of a record-setting rookie year where he was named Rookie of the Year, Cam seemingly took a step back in his second season leading the Carolina offense. His total touchdowns and yardage decreased, and the Panthers failed to make the playoffs in a year full of expectations.

This season, the Panthers have jumped out as a leader in the NFC, even after losing a critical matchup with the Saints last week. Still, many critics have decided that Cam is just as pompous as Kenny Powers, labeling him a poor leader and questioning his ability to quarterback a winning team after just two seasons. Here at numberFire, we don’t rely on opinion - we use data. Let’s see what the numbers say about Cam’s play in 2013, as well as his overall progression since entering the league.

The Good: Running Ability

There’s no doubt that Cam Newton is an electric football player. He’s large enough to run over most NFL linebackers, while also fast enough to beat them to the edge for extra yardage. Through his first three seasons, Cam’s most effective weapon has been his legs. During his rookie season, he was second amongst quarterbacks (min 20 carries) in NEP per Rush at .40. Christian Ponder sits atop that list; he ran the ball only 27 times in 2011, but was careful with his attempts, contributing positively when he did run. Cam ran with the ball nearly five times as often, finishing the year with 125 carries. As a reminder, NEP measures efficiency; clocking in with over 100 carries yet still affording his team a positive .40 points every time he carried the ball, Cam was making defenses pay when they didn’t account for him.

Now, surely, defenses would catch on to Cam’s running game and adjust after his rookie season, right? We’ve seen RGIII and Kaepernick limited in 2013 after rushing all over the league during their first seasons as starters. To quote Lee Corso, "not so fast, my friend."

Cam was able to repeat his rush efficiency in Year 2 while not dialing down on the usage of his top weapon. Superman rushed the ball 128 times in 2012 and nearly matched his rookie year’s NEP output: finishing the year at .37 NEP per rush. For comparison sake, let’s take a look at Cam’s Rushing NEP over his first two seasons alongside the 2012 class’ numbers.

PlayerYear 1 CarriesYear 1 NEP/rushYear 2 CarriesYear 2 NEP/rushYear 3 CarriesYear 3 NEP/rush
Cam Newton1250.401280.37790.57
Robert Griffin III1150.52830.09
Andrew Luck620.58390.83
Colin Kaepernick610.27670.27
Russell Wilson940.31690.27
Ryan Tannehill480.15280.22

Year 1 refers to the quarterback's first year as starter.

As detailed in the table above, when grouped with his stylistic peers, Cam has been one of the most consistently efficient running quarterbacks in the league. Churning out such efficiency while carrying the ball 100-plus times is incredibly impressive. Only Andrew Luck, who does a fantastic job of picking and choosing when to run, has been more efficient.

As a note, quarterbacks tend to have higher NEP per Rush values because of the situations that they carry the ball. If Andrew Luck drops back on 3rd and 10 and takes off for an 11 yard gain, that increases his team’s chance of getting points on that drive and the NEP metric rewards such a play. A 10-yard run on 3rd and 16 deep in your own territory does not generate nearly the same increase in NEP because it is likely that you are punting away that possession.

It’s hard to argue that Cam has not improved as a runner and is having his best season of rushing in 2013. And, even more impressively, he has done so without a drop-off in carries.

Needs Improvement: Passing

When it comes to moving the ball through the air, Cam has not been nearly as efficient, and has struggled at times with consistency as a result. Part of his struggles can be attributed to a poor job of building up weapons around him by Panthers management.

Cam’s best weapons this year - arguably the best he's had as a quarterback - have been DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Brandon Lafell, and Ted Ginn Jr.

Read those names again. A 30-year-old running back who hasn’t sniffed 1,000 yards since 2009, a 34-year-old receiver who still competes but is inarguably on the downswing, G-reg from the seventh floor crew, Brandon Lafell (that's all you need to know), and a return specialist who barely saw the field with the 49ers last year.

Ted Ginn Jr has become Cam’s most efficient receiver this year in terms of NEP per Target, settling into the number 35 spot in the NFL among tight ends and wideouts with 20-plus targets. This metric, while it looks at effectiveness on a per target basis, skews towards bigger play receivers, something Ginn is. However, the fact that he ranks so low within the metric just goes to show how poor Cam's weapons really are.

Most importantly, aside from his weapons, Cam currentl sits 17th in NEP per Pass (min 100 passes) at .08. This puts him in the company of the somewhat struggling Matt Ryan and Ryan Fitzpatrick - a place you don't necessarily where you want to be. How does this compare to past seasons, you ask? Good question. Let’s take a look at Cam’s efficiency compared to the same young peers outlined above:

PlayerYear 1 NEP/PassYear 2 NEP/PassYear 3 NEP/Pass
Cam Newton0.100.120.08
Robert Griffin III0.170.03
Andrew Luck0.050.04
Colin Kaepernick0.170.10
Russell Wilson0.200.23
Ryan Tannehill-0.040.02

Year 1 refers to the quarterback's first year as starter.

The most interesting takeaway from these numbers is the obvious regression from year one to year two for the 2012 class, outside of Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill (Tannehill's numbers were poor in Year 1, however, so he could only go up). While Cam isn't part of that class and has an additional year under his belt (this is just a nice comparison of young quarterbacks), he actually improved from Year 1 to Year 2, but has now seen his Year 3 numbers dip a bit.

But I think, regardless, Cam's metrics have remained fairly constant so far throughout his career - there's been little improvement, but not a whole lot of decline. Perhaps that's due to the weapons around him not changing, or maybe - just maybe - this is the Cam Newton we're going to see in the future.