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The Forthcoming Resurrection of Cam Newton

After Kyle Allen’s 4-0 start as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, many fans and analysts were clamoring for his permanent placement atop the depth chart. They believed Cam Newton was essentially finished and less efficient than Allen when he was actually on the field.

Then Allen imploded against a tough San Francisco defense and the question emerged again: When will Cam Newton return and what type of quarterback will he be when he does?

The quick answer: A quarterback you want on your roster.


Former Fantasy Glory

In the back of our heads, we all think of Cam Newton as the imposing rushing quarterback who took fantasy teams to championships. In 2012 and 2013 he finished as the fourth and third-ranked quarterback in fantasy, respectively. He suffered through injuries in 2014, but was the top-ranked quarterback in fantasy in 2015, and, in 2017, after another injury-shortened season, he returned as the second-ranked quarterback in fantasy.

Last year, before getting hurt yet again, Newton was the fourth-ranked quarterback through the first half of the season. Despite playing injured and missing two games, he still finished as the 12th-ranked quarterback, so a QB1 in 12-team leagues.

All of which is to say that Newton has always been a quarterback with elite upside. Much of that has been tied to his rushing, as he’s never run for fewer than 360 yards or four touchdowns since he came into the league. However, he has also never thrown for under 3,300 yards when playing a full season, so he has been an asset through the air.

The question is whether or not that can continue now that he is 30 years old and almost a decade into his NFL career.


Injury History 

The biggest hindrance to Cam’s fantasy value has been injuries. Since entering the league, he’s suffered a variety of debilitating injuries. In 2014 he tore ligaments in his ankle, then fractured a rib in a preseason game the following year before suffering a lower back fracture in a car accident that same season.

In 2016, he suffered a concussion and then tore his rotator cuff in December of that year but played through it before getting surgery in the offseason.

As mentioned earlier, he suffered a shoulder injury in 2018 but played through it before being shut down for the final two games. He had surgery this past offseason before coming back and injuring his foot in the preseason.

It’s a pretty extensive list of injuries. And he played through almost all of them. Demonstrating his toughness and skewing the analytics of his performance at the same time.

A lot of these past injuries can obviously be attributed to Newton’s rushing ability. It has led to concerns that he will run less; however, the results haven’t really indicated that is likely.


Diminishing Rushing Concerns

After Newton suffered rib and back fractures in 2014, he rushed for 636 yards and ten touchdowns in 2015. After he tore his rotator cuff and suffered a concussion in 2016, he ran for 754 yards and six touchdowns in 2017.

Despite playing through a shoulder injury last year, he carried the ball 101 times in 14 games. It’s not far-fetched to assume that a healthy Newton would have rushed 115-120 times last season had he played in all 16 games. Even his 101 carries were second in the NFL to Lamar Jackson. Deshaun Watson was right behind Newton at 99 and then Josh Allen followed with 89.

Watson and Allen are viewed as two of fantasy’s top rushing quarterbacks and they both had fewer carries than an injured Cam Newton. Watson’s rushing attempts were also lower while he played a full 16 game season.

Last year, Newton also had four rushing touchdowns, which was tied for fourth-most among quarterbacks.

All of which suggests that, even when playing hurt or recovering from injury, Newton is still going to run. As the injuries continue to pile up, he may never get to the 130 carry, 10-touchdown years from before, but he will still be among the top rushing quarterbacks in the league, offering him a higher floor than most quarterbacks.


Playing Under Norv Turner

As noted above, before getting hurt, Newton was thriving in his first year in Norv Turner’s offense. Turner’s offense brings a lot of misdirection and run-pass options (RPOs), which allows Newton to use his natural creativity.

What's more, Newton now actually has dynamic weapons to throw the ball to. D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey are considerably more exciting than Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess (Go Blue). With these new speedy wide receivers in the fold, Norv Turner's offensive scheme freed them up to get open in space, creating easier throws for Newton that would allow his receivers to do a lot of work after the catch.

As was explained in a Sports Illustrated piece last year: “Those seam-area passes come naturally in Turner’s system, which does a great job at creating high-low route combinations to exploit zone coverage. Newton is getting increasingly comfortable with these quarterback-friendly designs. It helps that the low part of the high-low often features Christian McCaffrey, whom the Panthers have realized is at his best catching passes out of the backfield."

This is why, despite playing through a shoulder injury, Newton completed a career-high 67.9% of his passes last season. Pro Football Focus’ adjusted completion percentage (doesn’t include drops or throwaways) had Newton completing 78% of his passes last year, good for ninth-best in the NFL.

Look at some of the names that were less accurate than him last year: Watson, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady.

However, people seemed to forget about Newton’s production and scheme fit after his recent string of injuries.


Explaining His Recent Production Decline

However, whenever anybody talks about Newton's recent performance, they want to harp on his last eight games.

It's a convenient narrative, considering that Newton was playing through shoulder and foot injuries during those last eight games. In just the last five games before getting hurt last year, Newton threw for 1,247 yards and 10 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He also rushed for 160 yards and a touchdown.

Across a 16 game pace, that comes out to 3,990 yards, 32 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 512 rushing yards, and three rushing touchdowns. Based on most quarterback scoring metrics, that would have amounted to 338.6 fantasy points on the season and would have made Newton the fourth-ranked quarterback, just behind Ben Roethlisberger's 341 and Matt Ryan's 354.

The final eight games stats are cherry-picked to highlight Newton’s fantasy upside being capped by his shoulder injury. In particular, his biggest issue was completing deep passes:

With Newton’s accuracy suffering on the deeper passes, he stopped throwing them altogether. Newton’s aDOT (average depth of target) last year was the lowest it has been his entire career. He also attempted the fewest deep balls of his career and had the lowest deep ball percentage of his career.

This clearly demonstrates that playing through the injury was impacting Newton’s ability to drive the ball downfield and hit on big plays. It limited his fantasy ceiling, but it also allowed defenses to play him closer to the line of scrimmage, take away the shorter passes, and meet Newton closer to the line of scrimmage when he ran, which happened less often given the injury.

Although Newton had surgery to clean up the shoulder injury in the offseason, his foot injury impacted any return to his usual success. In an enlightening video, Newton explains in his own words that he couldn’t run early in the year.

Not only did this limit his rushing upside, but it impacted his escapability and his mechanics on throws when he was able to stay in the pocket. Anybody who watched him play knows that it wasn’t the same Newton. He was jittery and off-balance constantly. He missed easy throws and didn’t take advantage of any running lanes.

As Newton said in the video above, he plans to return when he can be the same quarterback he has always been. It's looking like that day is close.


Final Verdict

This should all tell you that the calls for Newton’s job are reactionary and short-sighted. Newton is still a difference-maker at quarterback and needs to be added in all leagues where he’s on the wire. He should also be a top target for teams looking to buy low in dynasty leagues.

He is likely no longer a contender for the top overall quarterback spot. He’s simply suffered too many injuries and can’t match the rushing upside of Lamar Jackson or the passing acumen of Patrick Mahomes. However, Newton shouldn’t be forgotten.

He has proven that he will still be a top-five rushing quarterback and was making clear and statistically-validated progress as a passer in a new offense before getting injured. The consistent rushing – even though it’s not at his past heights – will give him the floor of a top-10 quarterback, but the improved passing will allow him to push towards the top-five discussion if early returns continue to bear out.

With the state of the quarterback position murky at best, landing a consistent top-10 option is a boon that no fantasy manager should turn down.

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