Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Connor Allen. Follow him on Twitter @Fantasy_Matrix and visit his website FantasyFootballMatrix.com.
Being average in fantasy football gets you nowhere, and it’s therefore important to understand which players can provide your team with upside. Anyone who knows what it’s like to miss the playoffs on a last-second touchdown or on tie-breakers understands they might as well have finished last. This year, drafting Cam Newton gives you top-5 fantasy upside at the quarterback position with a cost multiple rounds cheaper than signal callers of similar potential.
Throughout his career Cam Newton has been a boom or bust option in fantasy football. Cam’s career finishes range anywhere from first (2015) to 17th (2013 & 2016). Jacob Rickrode of Rotoviz created the below table looking at quarterbacks’ yearly fantasy finishes (Scoring Settings: 4 points per passing TD and -1 per INT). This helps to find players on similar career arcs in terms of fantasy football:
These are the most relevant QBs over the last decade with finishes by year. Peyton, Brady, Brees and Rodgers have dominated the position. pic.twitter.com/r4rH0pH7Xs
— Jacob Rickrode (@ClutchFantasy) February 13, 2017
This chart truly outlines my point that Cam either finishes as an elite QB1 option or a mid-QB2. It’s worth noting though that in both of his QB17 season, Newton missed at least one game and was injured in others. This year, there are plenty of reasons to believe Cam will finish as an elite fantasy QB.
What Went Wrong in 2016
In order to get excited about Cam Newton’s 2017 potential, it’s important to understand what actually happened last season. The expectations had never been higher for him after winning the league MVP and taking his team to the Super Bowl in 2015. Widely drafted as the top fantasy quarterback in 2016, Newton went on to set career lows in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, yards per pass attempt, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. He suffered a concussion in Week 4, which held him out Week 5. He also tore his rotator cuff in Week 14, “toughing it out” through the rest of the season.
Looking at how he performed after tearing his rotator cuff revealed that, prior to Week 14, Newton’s season wasn’t a full-blown horror show. Using only his games from Week 1 to Week 13 (11 games), he averaged 18.84 fantasy points, which would have made him the QB7 in points per game. With the season already lost, he oddly decided to play through his torn rotator cuff and put up two abysmal performances in the final two games of the season (posting a combined 2:5 TD:INT ratio and 9.8 fantasy points/game). This split impacted not only his total point finish, but also fantasy owners’ perception of him thanks to his dud weeks in the fantasy playoffs.
Speaking more about last season, per Warren Sharp’s 2017 Football Preview, Carolina’s offensive line was the fifth-most injured in the NFL. Furthermore, teams blitzed Newton at the highest rate in the league per Pro Football Focus (40%), Cam was under pressure early and often. As seen in the chart below by Scott Barrett, Cam Newton is actually the fifth-most pressure impacted quarterback in the NFL:
Difference In Passer Rating When Operating From A Clean Pocket vs. When Under Pressure (2016) pic.twitter.com/IKRyAOtss8
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) March 30, 2017
With a clean pocket, he posted a passer rating of 90.9. Under pressure, it was a miserable 44.4. As you can tell, it is vital to Cam’s success to have a clean pocket. Luckily for him, there are plenty of variables working in his favor for a bounce-back season in 2017.
Favorable Strength of Schedule
The Panthers get to play against the easiest opposing defenses in 2017 in terms of overall efficiency. This is similar to the cakewalk schedule the Panthers played in Cam’s 2015 MVP season. In terms of pass efficiency of opposing defenses, the Panthers go from facing the sixth-hardest schedule in 2016 to the third-easiest in 2017.
This is another important part of Newton’s potential success, as he has historically scored approximately five more fantasy points per game against teams with pass defenses in the bottom half of the league. This season, 12 of his 16 games will be against such opponents. Another way to visualize how easy Newton’s projected schedule is by using Sharp Football Analysis’ “Pass Blend” metric:
Pass Blend combines pass efficiency, yards per pass attempt, explosive passes, and pass rush efficiency. As you can see in the visual above, the Panthers have the easiest “Pass D Blend of Opponents” by a wide margin. Beyond the Panthers’ ease of pass defenses, they are playing against the second-toughest schedule of opposing offenses. This will make for competitive game scripts at all times, hopefully not allowing the Panthers to run out the clock.
The Weaponry Cupboard Is Stocked
Carolina made multiple moves in the offseason to help Cam Newton’s fantasy potential. To start, they reshuffled their offensive line, which now ranks 12th-best, according to Pro Football Focus. They made two key additions in the draft with Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, who should be incredibly useful to Newton (especially in the short-passing game, according to Derrik Klassen). As mentioned earlier, Newton was blitzed at the highest rate in the league (40%) last season, but the Panthers now have two explosive options who can create separation quickly and make teams pay for blitzing.
When teams blitz they will often leave a linebacker 1-on-1 against McCaffrey, a pass-catching weapon with fantastic route-running ability and 97th-percentile agility per PlayerProfiler.com. A mismatch of this sort has the potential to turn small dump-offs into big plays. This all comes back to pressure, the most important variable for Newton. With teams not able to blitz as much because of his added weapons, the line being healthy, and an easier schedule of opposing pass rushers, the Panthers’ signal caller should be under pressure much less often in 2017.
Cam Newton Possesses High Upside
A fair counter to the usefulness of Carolina’s new weapons is to say that Cam doesn’t dump the ball off. That has been true to this point in his career, but the Panthers’ focus of this offseason has been on Newton’s long-term protection. After getting banged up last season and telling the media he doesn’t enjoy football anymore because of being hit so frequently, Newton should be willing to change his ways and dump the ball off in order to protect himself. However, this doesn’t mean he will strictly be a pocket passer and stop running. People think dump-offs and quarterback rushing are a one-to-one trade-off. I often see false logic of, “Well he is going to dump the ball off so he won’t be rushing.” This isn’t true, especially for Newton, who previously would roll out and force the ball into tight windows downfield if the defense bites to him.
Now that he has the threat of explosive underneath options it will be much more difficult for opposing defenses to keep track of all the Panthers weapons, including Cam. This will give him much higher efficiency when he does decide to run. With the threat of screens to McCaffrey or reverses to Samuel, Cam’s designed rushes will be much more effective, as long as the coaching staff is creative. Newton’s career low in yards per carry last season (4.0) is almost certain to return to his career average of 5.2, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him approach or smash his career-high 5.8 YPC. While he may not have as many designed runs, his increased efficiency should make up for the lack of volume.
Cam should remain Carolina’s go to option inside the five-yard line after posting an 80% success rate in the red zone within five yards of the endzone or a first down. He is still their best weapon in that part of the field, which keeps his rushing touchdown upside high. When he’s played a full season, Newton has scored six, eight, 10, and 14 rushing touchdowns. He’s also likely to positively regress toward his career average in passing touchdown percentage (4.6%) after posting a career low in 2016 (3.7%).
With more time to throw against easier secondaries, and additional explosive options underneath keeping defenses honest, Newton should have his way with defenses on the ground and through the air in 2017. Currently with a cost of QB10 in TwoQBs’ redraft ADP, Newton is a low-cost, high-upside pick among the high-end quarterbacks in 2QB leagues. He has proven over the course of his career to have elite upside and again has many factors pointing towards that potential this season.
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