Re-Watching Julio, Cam, LockerMonday, June 18, 2012
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
Newton shredded secondaries early in the season, passing for 290 or more yards four times in the first eight games. He didn't hit 290 in any of the final eight. So I picked two late-season games -- Week 14 versus Atlanta and Week 16 versus Tampa Bay -- to see what happened.
The first thing that stood out was Carolina's easy-to-watch offense. OC Rob Chudzinski ran a ton of read-option, with Cam in the shotgun making a split-second decision to either give the football to DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart, or run it himself. On the vast majority of read-option plays, Newton let his back do the dirty work. Whether it was Williams, Stewart, or Newton taking the carry, the Panthers broke off many chunk-yardage plays. This wasn't a boring running offense.
Newton has an absolute rocket arm, and it's his greatest attribute. It's the trait that instills the fear of god into defenses -- not his running ability. Cam isn't the most accurate thrower in the short to intermediate, but he tosses a powerful, picturesque deep ball. And Newton isn't the least bit afraid to challenge deep. He'll rip it long whenever receivers get open. His eyes are constantly downfield.
I think Newton's passing stats tailed off down the stretch because Steve Smith, Legedu Naanee, and Brandon LaFell simply weren't creating enough separation down the football field. Opponents were deathly afraid of Smith, using bracket coverage to keep him contained. Naanee was the weakest skill-position player on the field in both games I reviewed. A stiff, straight-line guy with little post-catch wiggle and zero vertical tools, Naanee was the only difficult-to-watch Panther.
What is clear: Newton is a dominant, game-breaking talent. Even when his wide receivers failed to create bomb opportunities, Newton's playmaking ability shined through. He accounted for six all-purpose touchdowns and 548 total yards in the two games, and Carolina scored 71 points. Newton is Roethlisberger-like with his ability to break free from two-arm tackles and fire off rocket balls after quickly setting his feet. There isn't a more exciting young player in football right now.
More Panthers takeaways:
** Even late in the season at age 32, Smith was playing on springs. He torched (mostly) Dunta Robinson for 125 yards on six catches in the Falcons game and ripped off 23 yards on a reverse against Tampa. There's plenty of liveliness left in Smith's legs.
** DeAngelo Williams looked better than I expected. Stewart has developed into a superior back, but Williams is still a high-quality runner, particularly when he reaches the perimeter.
** Losing Naanee should be addition by subtraction in Carolina. LaFell enters the starting lineup, and the Panthers will insert 6-foot-3, 216-pound speedster David Gettis as the No. 3 receiver.
** I don't think LaFell is quite gifted enough to emerge as a top-25 NFL wideout, but he can haul in passes Naanee couldn't and appears to be mastering Chudzinski's scheme. LaFell played the slot and outside against Atlanta and Tampa. His large catch radius was evident on an errant pass by Newton in the Bucs game. LaFell extended himself high above his head to secure the throw, then beat everyone to the house for a 91-yard score. He's also comfortable making plays in traffic.
Titans quarterback Jake Locker
Locker didn't start any games as a rookie, but he played extensively off the bench in three. I watched two (Week 11 at Atlanta, Week 14 vs. New Orleans) and saw an exciting young QB with a rare combination of tools. I also saw a passer who struggled with accuracy outside the numbers.
The scouting report might give you déjà vu, because it's awfully similar to the "book" on Locker coming out of Washington. He possesses a power arm and can make any throw with ideal velocity. Locker loses nothing off his fastball when he's outside the pocket. He rips it on the run.
He's also a threat for big gains on the ground. Locker has legitimately dangerous speed and some elusiveness as a scrambler. He isn't easy to tackle. Inside the pocket, I thought Locker stood tall and was cool for the most part. He loved to challenge deep, and wasn't out there taking checkdowns in the Falcons game, even with the defense playing prevent sitting on a lead.
Overall, Locker's ball placement was erratic, and that led to stalled drives in the Saints game. His down-to-down accuracy was head-scratchingly shaky. Locker would look like an elite passer on one play, and Kyle Boller on the next.
My comparison to Locker is a young Donovan McNabb. His accuracy is an issue, but he has natural playmaking ability. The Titans' coaching staff seems to believe Locker's ball placement can improve with technical changes. But if it doesn't, can Locker's god-given skill level compensate?
More Titans takeaways:
** Matt Hasselbeck started both games I watched. (I didn't fast forward to Locker in relief.) The difference between the two was stark. While Hasselbeck still stands comfortably in the pocket amid oncoming pass rushers, his throws lacked any hint of zip. In the Falcons game, Atlanta defenders got their hands on seemingly every other Hasselbeck pass because they floated through the air and were easy to jump. Late in the season at least, Hasselbeck was a short-ball thrower only.
** I remember writing late last season that I thought Chris Johnson's struggles were on him. He didn't seem to be playing hard. After re-watching the Saints and Falcons games, I'll stand by that evaluation. Johnson ran soft and accelerated only when he saw clear lanes. He was tackled too easily. He was also clearly frustrated by the inability of Tennessee's offensive line to open holes. Johnson wasn’t out there giving full effort snap by snap.
** A few things to remember on Locker: He played without a running game in his three relief appearances. He also didn't have Kenny Britt. Nate Washington was Locker's best receiver.
I hope these game reviews provided some insight as to the skill sets and talent levels of these three rising second-year players. Each of them possesses an immense amount of fantasy potential. If you are interested in more write-ups like this, let me know on Twitter.