No. 4: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Why he's here
Cam Newton isn't fair. A man that tough to tackle should not also play quarterback. His speeding bullets look faster than anyone else's. The quarterback position has evolved, with the top five of our top quarterbacks 25 and under showing incredible athleticism to match the usual signal-caller traits. But Newton feels like the most evolved. He's the scariest for defenses to handle if he puts it all together.
It is a beautiful thing to see when Newton gets all day to throw. His arm strength is outrageous, and he's improved at throwing from the pocket. No team made more big plays than the Panthers in Newton's rookie season. He averaged the most yards per completion of any quarterback in 2012 and finished second in yards per attempt. This happened during Newton's supposed sophomore slump.
Newton's running ability makes him look like a player sent from the future. (No, not this guy.) Even after the Panthers cut down on their read-option plays in the second half of the season, Newton took an awful lot of big hits as a thrower and runner. But he delivers hits like no other quarterback. Safeties trying to tackle Newton get knocked backward.
You can't make a career simply out of running from the quarterback position. But you also can't discount the value of 1,447 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in two seasons. Newton is a promising young quarterback, with a side of Jerome Bettis thrown in for free.
Why he's not higher
Newton's highlight reel can compete with anyone. Watching him throw-to-throw is a lot more frustrating. When Newton misses, he misses by a lot. He often doesn't give his receivers a chance to catch the ball, especially in the red zone. I made sure to watch a few games from Newton's rough first half of the season in 2012 and three games from the second half, and the difference was not very dramatic.
Newton's numbers did not look good during Carolina's early losses, but he never was playing that poorly. And he was not playing as well as the numbers showed late in the season. Even in Newton's best games, like the win over the Atlanta Falcons and the blowout against the San Diego Chargers, he was not consistently accurate.
Newton's decision-making and ability to go through his reads should speed up with time. For such a mobile quarterback, he did not handle pressure as well as some of his contemporaries. The Panthers' play-calling sometimes did Newton no favors. They took a boom-or-bust approach under former coordinator Rob Chudzinski that relied on plays down the field.
That's Carolina's offense in a nutshell. Newton takes a deep drop in his own end zone with absolutely no options to throw to underneath. While Newton waits for his receivers to get vertical, he's swallowed by shaky protection. This dichotomy sums up Newton well, too. He can be a boom-or-bust player, often within the same game.
Newton took over a 2-14 team that was dead last in the league in both points and yards. They jumped to six wins and a top-five scoring offense during his record-breaking season in 2011, which raised expectations dramatically in 2012. Newton wasn't bad in his second season, but it's fair to say he didn't progress as quickly as hoped.
Newton still is learning how to anticipate throws. He still locks into his first read too often and can force plays. He's insanely difficult to tackle, which can be both great and awful at the same time.
Unlike a lot of running quarterbacks, Newton is terrific at standing tall in the pocket. It's almost as if he doesn't mind getting hurt or believes he can be taken down. As the plays above show, this can lead to magical moments. It also can lead to backbreaking mistakes. Newton doesn't have to get much better to be one of the most dangerous QBs in the league, but he doesn't have the reliability of a top-10 quarterback yet. You still aren't sure what you'll get from week to week.
Placing Newton this high admittedly is a projection. But the exercise for this series was not about what quarterback is the best right now; it's the quarterback I'd want moving forward. Russell Wilson's tape from 2012 was better. And yet I'm absolutely fascinated to see what's behind door No. 2 with Newton.
It's easy to forget Newton is not that far removed from his Blinn College playing days. His quarterbacking skills are perhaps less refined than some other young stars, but he has exceptional -- and in some ways unprecedented -- tools to work with. Newton already has shown he can be productive while he develops.
After Newton develops, there's no limit to what he can accomplish. He breaks the mold. There's a risk his career will be a roller-coaster, but the highs should be worth it. He might even become your mom's favorite player.