Few players saw as much regression last year as Newton. Never a highly accurate passer, his completion percentage plunged to the bottom of the league, the sixth lowest all-time for a quarterback with at least 500 attempts. His passer rating on deep balls dropped from second (117.4) to 21st (79.1) as he completed just 26.5 percent (26th) of a nearly identical number of attempts (69 to 68) as in 2015. His rushing stats also were career lows across the board. Newton had a bad year, but his TD passes were similar to the rest of his career, as 2015's 35 look like the outlier, and he got little help from his receivers, who dropped 6.9 percent of his catchable throws (4th). Newton suffered a partially torn rotator cuff in Week 14 and tried to rehab it before undergoing surgery that sidelined him for offseason workouts, but he should be ready for camp. The Panthers, though, likely will limit his rushing this season to keep him healthy. That means fewer yards, but his number likely will still get called at the goal line (where he scored all five of his rushing TDs last season). The addition of rookie Christian McCaffrey adds a playmaker who can gobble up yards after the catch in the open field. But he needs more from Kelvin Benjamin, who barely has caught half his targets in his two healthy years, and 2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess, who is nearing bust status.
It all came together for Newton in 2015, as he combined his usual domination on the ground with a career-high 35 passing TDs, just one short of Tom Brady's league-leading 36 - and also throwing a career-low 10 picks en route to his first MVP award. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider he accomplished them without wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed the season with a torn ACL. While accuracy remains a bit of an issue for Newton, he's got the arm strength to stretch the field and his ability to read defenses has improved noticeably with experience. His best asset remains his running, however, and he led all QBs in red-zone carries for the fifth straight season. That efficiency on the ground tends to limit how often the Panthers air it out from in close, however, and while his 78 red-zone passes set a career high, it still ranked him only 12th in the NFL. His 7.1 TD percentage is also likely to regress, and all together Newton seems unlikely to top 30 passing TDs again in 2016. His production on the ground gives him an excellent floor, but last season may have represented his ceiling.
Ankle, rib and back injuries and an inferior supporting cast last year conspired to keep Newton out of the top 5 of QB fantasy scoring for the first time. He missed two games, which contributed to a fourth consecutive decline in passing yards — nearly 1,000 yards fewer than his rookie season — and a career-low 18 touchdown passes. He was sacked nearly three times per game behind an offensive line that started four undrafted players at one point. His best receivers were a tight end, Greg Olsen, and a rookie, Kelvin Benjamin. Both had 1,000 yards, but they combined for just 10 receptions of 25-plus yards, fewer than all but five of the league's 21 other 1,000-yard receivers. And Newton completed only 20.4 percent of his passes of 21-plus yards, posting a career-low 6.98 YPA. The Panthers made some changes on the offensive line, but it's not clear that Michael Oher, Jonathan Martin or fourth-round draft pick Daryl Williams are actually upgrades. As for the receivers, they traded up in the draft to select WR/TE Devin Funchess, who gives Newton another big target at 6-4. He'll be needed out of the gate, with Benjamin having suffered a torn ACL in August. That's a huge hit to the team's passing attack, with the likes of Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn, Philly Brown and Jarrett Boykin now vying for expanded roles in the wake of Benjamin's injury. It was thought that Newton, whose rushing scores have declined every year to five in 2014, might not run as much this season, but the questions surrounding the team's wideout corps may now supersede such an outcome. He has taken 531 hits since 2011, 259 more than any quarterback in that span, and keeping him healthy is paramount. He still has plenty of promise in the red zone, though — he accounted for 29.8 percent of Carolina's red-zone carries last season, second among quarterbacks.
Newton is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league, so it's been frustrating to see Carolina do such a poor job of surrounding him with playmakers at the receiver position. That frustration only worsened this offseason, as Carolina cut Steve Smith and lost left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement, somehow leaving Newton with significantly less help than he had a year ago, when he was already shouldering a large portion of the offensive workload. Although he upped his touchdown percentage to 5.1 in 2013, Newton's passing yardage totals have dropped in each of his three seasons, starting at 4,051 as a rookie before posting just 3,379 last year. As Newton's past fantasy owners are undoubtedly aware, his rushing production declined each year, too, with his rushing touchdowns decreasing from 14, to eight, to six. As one of the best players at his position and the league's premier rushing threat at quarterback, however, Newton will likely provide high fantasy value even if he struggles in real-life terms, so it's not all doom and gloom. Plus, the Panthers drafted 6-foot-5, 241-pound Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the draft, a physical receiver who should be a terror in the red zone.
Newton has been such a controversial and oft-discussed quarterback it's easy to forget he's been in the NFL for only two years. Newton failed to improve upon his stellar rookie year, compiling fewer passing yards, passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in 2012. As a result, he scored 88 fewer fantasy points, leading many to claim he was a bust.
Nonetheless, he still threw for nearly 4,000 yards, turned in improved efficiency at 8.0 YPA, decreased his interceptions to 12 and managed to run for more than 700 yards and eight scores. No matter how you slice it, that's one heck of a season for any passer, especially one in his second year in the league. We shouldn't let Newton's abnormal rookie stats cloud our judgment of just how productive he was in his sophomore campaign.
One of the easiest ways for Newton's fantasy performance to improve is simply by throwing the ball more often – something that could very well happen this year. Newton's 485 passing attempts ranked him only 19th in the NFL last year. If that total jumps to around 550, you're looking at a player who could easily lead the league in fantasy points.
On top of all that, you can expect Newton's rushing totals to remain steady. Quarterback rushing totals are the most consistent of all fantasy football stats – one reason Newton was actually able to improve upon his 706 rushing yards as a rookie. Newton also had 14 carries inside the opponent's five-yard line in 2012 and converted seven for scores, so you can expect the Panthers will keep calling his number from in close.
After he completed just 42.1 percent of his passes and averaged just 5.3 yards per attempt in the preseason, Newton’s total of 854 yards and three touchdowns passing and 71 yards and two touchdowns rushing in Weeks 1 and 2 couldn’t have been much more shocking. If there were something more shocking, it was that he hardly slowed down. Newton was too big, fast and strong to be contained as a runner, and he showed surprising accuracy and instincts as a passer, nearly becoming an NFL offense unto himself. By season’s end he threw for 4,051 yards (7.8 YPA), 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, while running for 706 yards (5.6 YPC) and 14 touchdowns. It wouldn’t surprise us if Newton were to regress slightly as a fantasy option, particularly due to a drop in rushing scores, but it’s also reasonable to expect some improvement from him as a passer in Year 2. Consider that Newton’s No. 2 WR from last year was Legedu Naanee, who finished 2011 with just 44 catches for 467 yards and a touchdown. The development of young wideouts Brandon LaFell and David Gettis could help Newton’s passing numbers improve, as could the addition of fourth-round wide receiver pick Joe Adams.
With a huge arm, a big build and 4.59 speed, Newton’s potential is off the charts. But his one starting season in Division I was in Auburn’s one-read option offense, meaning Newton has next to no familiarity with the NFL tasks ahead of him. For that reason, it’s tough to see him winning the starting spot this year. But it’s also tough to see Jimmy Clausen going a full season without getting benched. Newton's only other competition is veteran Derek Anderson and it would be very surprising to see Anderson get the call before Newton. If he does get an extended run of playing time, he’s worth a look thanks to his running ability.