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Franchise rushing leader DeAngelo Williams, who restructured his contract during the offseason, got plenty of reps this spring, as did fullback Mike Tolbert. The Panthers did not run a lot of zone read during OTAs, and it appears the option package will be de-emphasized under first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula. In the passing game, Newton demonstrated great timing with tight end Greg Olsen throughout the spring. – The Charlotte Observer
You might be wondering why this matters; after all, we’ve heard that the Panthers used the zone read less during the 2nd half of 2012, when Newton went on a tear. Rich Hribar of SportsJerk.net combed through the ProFootballFocus game logs and found that to be incorrect. Over the first eight games of the season, Newton ran 43 designed runs for 238 yards and 4 touchdowns. The second half of the season? 38 designed runs for 233 yards and 3 touchdowns. So much for that theory.
It is early in the offseason, and perhaps we’re too hasty to believe that the Panthers will totally abandon such a key part of their offense the last two seasons. After all, Cam Newton easily leads the NFL will 252 rushes and 22 touchdowns the last two years. For the sake of this article, we’ll just assume they ditch the zone read entirely, and focus on what would happen to Newton if he were a true pocket passer.
Using Newton’s career yards per attempt of 7.9, his touchdown rate of 4%, and his interception rate of 2.9%, we can estimate how he would perform over a full season:
To justify his current ADP of QB5, Newton will have to throw at least 570 passes. Cam threw 417 times last year, but if they’re not utilizing his running ability anymore, he’ll surely throw more. Newton attempted a pass on 87.39% of his dropbacks, 22nd lowest in the league. Assuming a 3% bump to the league average of 90.21%, that would give Newton 500 attempts, based of the number of dropbacks he had last year. That number of attempts put him as the 2012 QB7, 2 spots below where he’s being drafted. While the Panthers can use the zone read less, Newton still has the ability to scramble. Last year, he scrambled 32 times for 276 yards and 1 touchdown. That’s an additional 1.6 points per game. Assuming similar passing efficiency on 500 attempts, with the rushing attempts holding steady, Newton would score 17.1 points per game, good for the QB2 mark last year.
I was surprised to find that Newton would still be a reliable fantasy asset with less designed rushing attempts. In reality, it’s hard to envision the Panther’s ditching the zone read altogether. 17 of Newton’s 22 career rushing touchdowns have come inside the 10 yard line. Newton converts carries inside the 10 into touchdowns 38.6% of the time, and having a quarterback who also operates as your goal line back is a supreme strategic advantage. We’ve seen the impact dual-threat quarterbacks have had on the NFL; Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick are forcing the defenses to play 11 on 11 football, and it’s been wildly successful. It’s true that Newton hasn’t been a particularly good real football quarterback, but he’s a stud fantasy quarterback. The reduction in zone read plays could be a knee jerk reaction to RGIII’s injury, but it’s likely just offseason chatter. From the same paper that reported about the zone read’s removal:
…with Newton, who led the Panthers in rushing last season, Shula indicated he would use a mix of the zone read and more traditional runs, along with a downfield passing attack. – The Charlotte Observer
Zone read or not, Cam Newton is a safe pick should you decide to go quarterback (relatively) early.