By Ben Linsey
Now, there are questions as to whether Newton, who was on top of the football world four seasons ago, will regain the starting quarterback job from an undrafted second-year player when he returns from his Lisfranc injury. Based on what we’ve seen from Newton recently, that skepticism is warranted, but in order to better evaluate what decision the Panthers should make, it’s best to look at the big picture for both candidates.
The best way to do that is through the lens of PFF’s data and play-by-play grading.
Statistical verdict on Kyle Allen: below average
If you had looked at Allen’s college resume and said that would land him a starting job in the NFL when he declared for the 2018 NFL draft, you may have been laughed at. Across three partial seasons at Texas A&M and Houston in which he tallied 1,183 offensive snaps, Allen posted an overall PFF grade of 58.8. His best season came as a sophomore at Texas A&M, but even then, Allen played just 569 snaps and recorded a grade of 66.5.
The PFF grading scale has two metrics that attempt to capture the extremes of quarterback play: big-time throws and turnover-worthy plays. Big-time throws are well-placed passes deep downfield and/or into tight windows, while turnover-worthy plays are exactly what the name suggests – passes that should be intercepted (regardless of the outcome) and fumbles that fall on the quarterback for being careless.
Over his college career, Allen had 22 big-time throws compared to 34 turnover-worthy plays. Giving the defense continued chances at turnovers like he was doing is not a recipe for long-term success.
Allen found a spot in the NFL, signing with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent prior to last season. Since then, all he has done is win – five games in a row as the starter to be exact. It’s easy to conflate the Panthers’ success in his starts with Allen’s performance at QB. After all, winning is all that matters, right?
It’s difficult to win on a consistent basis with below-average play from a starting QB. Despite what Allen’s 106.6 passer rating suggests, his performance this season has qualified as below average. He owns just the 24th-highest PFF grade at the position through the first seven weeks of the season.
It’s not as if he hasn’t provided the high-level plays that pique your interest. Allen ranks eighth among quarterbacks in big-time throw rate, trailing some of the top quarterbacks in the league in Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford. The issue is that he is pairing those highs with plenty of lows, especially when it comes to accuracy.
Since 2016, PFF has charted ball location data on all pass attempts. This season, Allen ranks 30th out of 32 quarterbacks in the percentage of his passes that were deemed to have accurate ball location (50 percent) and 30th in the percentage of his targeted passes that have been uncatchable (24.5 percent).
In the long term, that isn’t going to cut it.
He has been good enough over the Panthers’ four-game winning streak that he isn’t costing them games, but Allen also isn’t actively winning them any games. It’s important that the Panthers don’t mistake the former for the latter.
Strengths and glaring flaws of Cam Newton
Newton is the more difficult quarterback to evaluate, and it is much more important that the Panthers do so correctly. He is, after all, the face of their franchise.
The reason it’s difficult to pin down what to expect from Newton is that it’s clear that injuries impacted his play for significant stretches since his MVP campaign in 2015. He played through a partially torn rotator cuff to end the 2016 season, another injury to the same shoulder over the second half of last year and the foot injury to open 2019 that has sidelined him for the past five weeks. When healthy, Newton has proven to be in that middle tier of quarterbacks that can move up or down in a given season based on his supporting cast and situation. The problem is that he has played so many games in recent years at less than 100 percent that he has ended up hurting the Panthers’ chances of winning games. Last season tells the story of that dichotomy between a healthy and injured Newton well.
Across the first nine weeks of last season, Newton posted an overall grade of 80.9 (14th among qualifying quarterbacks). Offensive coordinator Norv Turner called plenty of play-action, using it on 32 percent of Newton’s dropbacks, and it was working. Newton’s passer rating jumped from 88.6 without play-action to 128.4 with it over that span. He saw similar increases in his completion percentage and yards per pass attempt when using a run fake. It was Newton’s best stretch of play since 2015, and Turner was maximizing his skills en route to a 6-2 start.
Part of that maximization and a key indicator that Newton was operating at full strength was the Panthers’ willingness to use him as a runner, where his combination of size and athleticism makes him difficult to handle for defenses. From Week 1 to 9, Newton carried the ball 53 times on designed rushes, 26 more than any other quarterback in the league.
Then, his shoulder began to become an issue, and it was clear that it was affecting his play over the tail end of the season. After Week 9, Newton recorded an overall grade of 54.4 (28th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks). The Panthers ran significantly less play-action, utilizing it on 23 percent of his dropbacks, and they chopped his designed runs down to 21 over that stretch before he called it quits. He simply wasn’t the same guy.
Taking the shoulder and foot injuries into account, it’s fair to say that Newton isn’t the bottom-of-the-league quarterback that he has appeared to be since the midway point of last season. It’s also fair to say that he’ll never be the top-end quarterback that the Panthers were hoping for when taking him first overall. Accuracy issues are at the root of that, much like Allen. Since 2016, Newton has been accurate on just 53.7 percent of his pass attempts (30th) and has thrown an uncatchable pass on 22.6 percent of his attempts (31st). The names around him in those rankings are the likes of Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian and Tyrod Taylor. That is sub-optimal company for a quarterback on a contract worth over $100 million.
It’s within the realm of possibility that Newton returns healthy this season and plays well, but the Panthers shouldn’t be expecting him to become a consistently accurate quarterback any time soon.
How should Panthers handle their quarterback situation?
The consensus seems to be that there is no way that the Panthers can pull Allen from the reins after rattling off four straight wins to dig the team out of the 0-2 hole that Newton helped put them into. Once Newton returns to full health, there is little to indicate that the Panthers should keep Allen at the helm. His results have hidden the fact that he has put the football in danger with a bottom-10 turnover-worthy play rate while struggling mightily with his accuracy. Despite what transpired over the first six weeks of the season, a healthy Newton gives the Panthers a better chance to compete for a playoff spot in the crowded NFC.
The added dimension that he can bring as a runner, particularly in read-option situations with Christian McCaffrey, adds a dynamic element to Carolina’s offense that Allen can’t replicate. The last time we saw Newton healthy in early 2018, he was off to one of the better stretches of play in his career, propelling the Panthers to four games above .500. Returning to Newton and running a similar game plan with plenty of play-action and designed quarterback involvement in the run game would give Carolina the best chance to continue the momentum it built prior to its Week 7 bye.
That isn’t to say that the Panthers should eschew fielding trade offers for Newton should teams come calling with enticing deals. Outside of 2015, Newton has been, at best, a league average quarterback with accuracy issues. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t the profile of a player a franchise wants to ride with well into his 30s as his athleticism wanes.
Newton provides the best option for the Panthers right now, but the best decision for the future lies outside the current roster.
For more NFL statistical analysis, go to PFF.com
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