In the NFL Draft community, making a player comparison is a very nuanced, thorough process. But for the mainstream football media, recognizable comparisons resonate better with the target audience, even if they aren’t entirely accurate. It’s one reason why every quarterback who throws a sidearm pass winds up getting compared to Patrick Mahomes, and why every immobile, high I.Q. signal caller gives off shades of Tom Brady. Making comparisons isn’t a process to take lightly, and in the pursuit of a Cam Newton type player in college football, that is especially true.
It’s almost become an annual trend to search for the next player to fulfill a certain archetype, but ask someone who the next Cam Newton is, and you’ll watch them fall silent. That’s because Newton’s archetype is one that’s very rare, and with him undergoing a career resurgence in New England, the rarity of a Cam Newton style QB deserves to be recognized.
Why finding the next Cam Newton in college football won’t be easy
Newton’s athleticism set him apart
We’ll start with the most obvious unique trait of Newton’s – his athleticism. It was apparent in Newton’s Heisman-winning season with the Auburn Tigers that he had top-notch athletic traits with other-worldly agility for his size and near-breakaway speed down the field. But his NFL Combine performance in 2011 contextualized his athleticism and made it that much more impressive.
At the 2011 NFL Combine, Newton paced the quarterback position, logging a 4.56 40-yard dash time, a 35-inch vertical jump, a 126-inch broad jump, and a sub 7-second three-cone time. He did all this at 6-foot-5, 248 pounds. Newton’s numbers gave him a Relative Athletic Score of exactly 10.0, making him the top-testing NFL quarterback of all time.
Newton’s physical traits were a big part of what made him the top quarterback prospect in his recruiting class, and an even bigger part of making him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Although he struggled to catch on with the University of Florida and had to go the junior college route before finding his stride, Newton’s athletic talent gave him a baseline through his entire early career. When he was able to develop around that framework, the results spoke for themselves.
Size doesn’t matter for quarterbacks, but it does for Newton
In the present, a “size doesn’t matter” movement has gained steam for quarterbacks. As recently as the mid-2010’s, there was a widely-touted traditional quarterback archetype. Being 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and being tough in the pocket, were among the desirable traits, and quarterbacks below 6-foot-2 often saw their stock drop because of their size, as teams feared they wouldn’t be as durable.
Now, in the modern NFL, quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Drew Brees, and Baker Mayfield are stripping that traditional view of its merit. Size doesn’t matter as much as many thought it did for quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean Cam Newton’s size isn’t a difference maker.
Quarterbacks of all different types can succeed at the NFL level, but given Newton’s athleticism and play style, his size gives him an edge that other mobile quarterbacks — as dynamic as they are — just can’t match.
Many athletic quarterbacks use their dynamic ability to evade rushers and find open space, and Newton is very good in that department. But his size also allows him to punish defenders, shake off contact, and stay on his feet through congestion.
Many of Newton’s 58 touchdowns for the Panthers, and all of his four scores for New England thus far, have come in the red zone. In Week 2, against the Seahawks, Newton converted from one yard out, twice.
Other signal-callers might struggle to make a difference in tense, physical situations. That’s not the case with Newton as his dominant frame and density allow Newton to impose his will and show defenders a certain toughness on the ground uncharacteristic of quarterbacks.
Newton’s added utility as a passer
While Newton himself is an anomaly, the dual-threat quarterback has long been a player type in college football. But many dual-threat quarterbacks have a tendency to rely on their physical abilities to a fault, to the point where they lack the necessary utility as a passer. These quarterbacks, while possessing raw potential, are often too risky and require an investment of time and attention that NFL teams simply can’t allow.
Newton, however, was different. Newton’s physical talent no doubt jumped off the screen, but on tape, Newton also displayed the ability to be a competent pocket passer, one who manipulated lanes with his mobility and stood tall in the face of pressure. There was undoubtedly room to grow and develop, but Newton’s pocket process gave him added security as a draft prospect.
Additionally, Newton’s arm talent also stood out in his lead-up to the 2011 NFL Draft. Newton can generate velocity with ease, as he possesses a powerful upper body, and in college, this was apparent, as he frequently used this velocity to fit the ball into tight windows and hit receivers downfield before safeties closed on them.
Newton also displayed the ability to throw with touch, a necessary component if he was to make different types of throws at the NFL level. Newton’s utility and versatility as a passer, combined with his running ability and imposing style, already set him apart, and there’s still one more factor to discuss.
Intangibles and leadership make Cam Newton complete
The physical capabilities always rest at the forefront for quarterbacks, but a trait that doesn’t command as much attention, but is just as important, is a quarterback’s ability to lead a locker room and rally players around him.
It’s not a succinctly tangible trait — draft analysts can’t know the full extent of a quarterbacks’ leadership duties. That’s why most draft analysis only brushes on leadership qualities as an auxiliary factor, rather than a primary determinant of draft stock.
With that being said, when a quarterback with Newton’s physical traits and passing ability has chemistry and leadership ability, he becomes a truly complete prospect. Throughout his career, we’ve known that Newton has a very exuberant personality, and earlier this offseason, he was voted as team captain for the New England Patriots, despite signing in July.
From everything we’ve seen, Newton has the ability to command a locker room, just as he has the ability to command a defense’s attention with his diverse pallet of skills. While it’s the less glamorous side of quarterbacking, passers have failed before when they weren’t able to rally their teammates when they needed to — when they couldn’t lead both with authority and by example.
Newton provides a benchmark as a leader as well, which makes him that much more impressive.
Cam Newton’s influence holds weight, despite his rarity
All this is to say, good luck finding the next Cam Newton in college football. But that hasn’t stopped NFL teams from looking. Teams have over-drafted quarterbacks for their size and athleticism in the years since 2011, and most notably, the Buffalo Bills, led by former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, drafted Josh Allen at No. 7 overall in 2018.
The pick was largely viewed as a reach at the time, as Allen was an incredibly raw prospect out of Wyoming with some issues with consistent accuracy. That being said, Allen presented the Bills with a similarly rare foundation; he stood at 6-foot-5, 237, and had a 4.75 40-yard dash and a 33.5-inch vertical jump on record.
Allen has grown to adopt his own unique style, but the influence from Cam Newton is clear through two years and two games. Allen has rushed for over 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first 30 contests, and figures to keep that trend going as Buffalo makes a concerted effort to maximize his traits.
He’ll have a lot of work to do if he wants to catch up to the original, however, as will every quarterback to follow Newton’s footsteps in the archetype. Now in his tenth NFL season, Newton has made the Pro Bowl three times, was voted MVP in 2015, and led his Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance that same year.
There’s still more for Newton to do. He’d tell you himself that he wants more than the 69 wins he has on record, and there are still those who aren’t sold that his return to prominence can last. But no matter where Newton goes from here, one thing is certain: He was an unequivocally historic quarterback prospect in college football, with the size, athleticism, passing ability, and contagious toughness to distinguish himself for decades.
So if someone tells you they’ve found the next Cam Newton, just smile, nod, and know they’re wrong.