Daily Focus: Is Cam Newton really the NFL’s best player?

Senior Analyst Sam Monson compares his 101 best players list to the NFL's recently released Top 100 ranking.

| 5 months ago
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Daily Focus: Is Cam Newton really the NFL’s best player?


Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Is Cam Newton really the NFL’s best player? The NFL’s Top 100 players reveal has come to an end, and Cam Newton finished at the top, coming off a season in which he was MVP and came within a game of earning a Super Bowl championship.

Newton definitely ended the season on fire, but his year was one of continual development, and not outright domination from the get-go, despite impressive numbers throughout. In grading terms, the first half of the season was actually relatively unremarkable from Newton. He was dealing with a poor receiving corps in Carolina, but other QBs had their problems, too, and were playing far better (Tom Brady and Carson Palmer, in particular). Over the first eight games (nine weeks) of 2015, Newton was 22nd in passing yards, 11th in passing touchdowns, sixth in interceptions thrown, and 34th in completion percentage.

If you throw in his work as a runner during those games, you get his touchdown total up to match Brady’s 22, but the Patriots’ QB had thrown just two picks over that time, was completing 68.6 percent of his passes, and would still be more than 500 yards in the clear, even including rushing yardage.

Palmer, running a similarly low-percentage attacking offense, was completing passes at a rate more than 10 percent better than Newton over that time. None of this is meant to bash Newton—he ended the season on fire—but this wasn’t an end-to-end run of dominance all season, and that’s what kept him outside of the top 10 in PFF’s list, let alone the number one overall spot.

In terms of athletic talent and potential, Newton may have the highest ceiling of any player in football, but you know that you will see outright dominance from J.J. Watt every week, and you can’t be nearly as sure about that from Newton yet.

Comparing the NFL’s list to PFF’s is a fascinating look at how perceptions and intangibles factor into player evaluation. PFF places a high value on proven down-to-down production, but NFL players are the guys getting hit and delivering the hits, and their reasoning is often far more anecdotal, and the aura of a player can have as big of an impact as the overall production he has when you listen to their reasoning. Both have merit, and explains some of the disagreements in ranking.

(PFF Fantasy Insight: There are reasons to expect regression, both from Newton individually and the Panthers at large. That said, Newton is still the consensus No. 1 QB in our staff rankings, and with his running ability, he’ll always have a high fantasy floor.)

Obviously, that isn’t the only place that the NFL list differs from my own at PFF, so let’s run through five guys the NFL has too high and five guys they have too low:

Too high:

1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings: NFL No. 5, PFF No. 78

Peterson is still a running workhorse, and much of the explanation is about how tough he is and how much it hurts to tackle him, but he’s a non-factor in the passing game, and for all that pain, other runners broke more tackles and gained more yardage after contact last season.

2. Todd Gurley, RB, Rams: NFL No. 22, PFF No. 97

The league may be down on running backs, but the voters in the NFL’s list certainly aren’t. Gurley was an explosive impact player as a rookie, but we have yet to see him do much in the passing game, and we’re working from a very small sample size. No. 22 feels very premature.

3. Kam Chancellor, S, Seahawks: NFL No. 32, PFF N/A

Kam Chancellor at his best changes games, but the issue is that he changes too few of them, and overall is probably the third-most important member of that Seattle secondary. Last season, 21 other safeties earned a higher overall grade.

4. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets: NFL No. 24, PFF No. 88

We’re clinging on to the player that Revis used to be to keep him as high as No. 24. Last season, Revis began to visibly slow, and while he’s still a very good player, he began to look like just another pretty good corner, not the island of no return he once was for receivers. Both Sammy Watkins and Amari Cooper gave him all sorts of problems.

5. Eli Manning, QB, Giants: NFL No. 47, PFF N/A

Statistically, this was arguably Eli Manning’s best season, but when you actually watch the tape, the play didn’t match the numbers. To rank him above players like Michael Bennett shows the kind of QB-love Bennett himself likes to rail against.

Too low:

1. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams: NFL No. 14, PFF No. 4

You can make an argument that there are three better players in the NFL than Aaron Donald right now. It’s not an easy one to make it, but I think you can sell three guys. You cannot, with any kind of logic, sell the notion that there are 13 better. This one is just being late to the Donald party.

2. Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland Browns: NFL No. 23, PFF No. 11

Linemen don’t get the kind of love RBs, WRs, QBs and edge rushers get, even all-time great ones like Thomas. He is still the pinnacle of pass-blocking left tackles in the game, and isn’t showing signs of decline.

3. Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens: NFL No. 37, PFF No. 13

Like Thomas, Yanda suffers from playing in the relative anonymity of the trenches. The Raven O-lineman is the league’s best guard right now, and one of the more dominant players at his position in football.

4. Chris Harris Jr, CB, Denver Broncos: NFL No. 52, PFF No. 24

Harris got lit up by Antonio Brown last season, but coming into that game, he hadn’t allowed a TD in 36 straight games, and Brown is the only receiver to gain 100 receiving yards on him in a game throughout his career. To rank him below his teammate, Aqib Talib, whom he routinely outplays, is just working on reputation at this point.

5. Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings: NFL N/A, PFF No. 34

I’m not sure how you can keep Anthony Barr off the list, given the season he just had. Barr has developed into one of the best linebackers in the game, and trailed only Luke Kuechly—a DPOY candidate—in overall PFF grade last season.

Saints add a useful rotational body in Darryl Tapp: Tapp has been in the league for 10 seasons and never topped 1,000 snaps in a year, but has consistently been a useful rotation player and graded well in five of those seasons, including the most recent. He hasn’t established himself as a specialist against the run or pass, but has been capable at both throughout his career, which has perhaps minimized his chance as a situational player in today’s specialized NFL. However, he can still play at this level and contribute very useful snaps for a team looking to spell its starters.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Whose valuation would I tend to side with?
    NFL: Peterson, Gurley, Chancellor, Thomas, Yanda, Barr
    PFF: Revis, Manning, Donald, Harris

  • JudoPrince

    “…but the Patriots’ QB had thrown just two picks over that time, was completing 68.6 percent of his passes, and would still be more than 500 yards in the clear, even including rushing yardage.”

    How can you compare completion % with Brady? Brady plays in a system that demands he get rid of the ball immediately for short completions. Of course he has a much higher percentage, not to mention one of the best all around players in the league in Gronk. Cam doesn’t merely play in a system the way a Brady or Palmer does…he IS the system the way they utilize the read option combined with a more consistent downfield passing attack.

    • PFFSamMonson

      Which is why I immediately compared him to Palmer after, who plays in a system much more like Cam’s.

      Palmer was that system last year every bit as much as Cam was Carolina’s

  • TJ Smith

    Can’t agree with the Chris Harris stuff. He is rarely matched with the top receivers. Pff doesn’t really care. Players do think about that. In there mind if you held healthy Dez Bryant to 5 catches 60 yards and Harris held whoever Dallas smaller receiver is to 2 catches for 20 yards. Talib in there mind had the more important day. Just for the fact what Dez is capable of. Plus even many within pff like to quantify him as great slot corner. Some may put a cap on great slot corner even if he lined up outside on base.

    • PFFSamMonson

      OK, but how important is matching up with top receivers if those receivers are regularly beating you? Talib has games where he looks elite, but his baseline is anything but.

      Matching up is also a scheme thing not a talent thing. Some teams prefer to take away No. 2 and then play chess with the other 10 guys to shut out No. 1. Some teams prefer to just play Left and Right and not mess with anybody’s comfort level.

      Bottom line is Harris shuts down what he’s covering better than almost any other CB in football, and kills the short game probably better than ANY other CB.

      Anyone calling him simply a slot corner is doing him a big disservice.

      • TJ Smith

        I’m not a huge Talib guy. I think the Broncos pass rush mask a lot of there issues. It is one reason why I think Seattle as an overall defense is better than the Broncos.

        Taking away the number 2 is fine. In the scheme that the Broncos use him he is a perfect fit. It is fair to say he does his job better than Talib. I think the problem the players have with Harris is his job is not as difficult as other elite corners in the league. When it time for him to follow an elite small WR. Which not that many in the league. He gets absolutely demolished.

        I’m not saying Talib should be higher but that I can’t sign up for Harris ranking in the twenties. I don’t even know if I can sign up for him in the top 75. If he so good he should cover Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, AJ Green. What has really annoyed me is Harris will tap out of match ups He struggled with Mike Wallace in the Denver game and moved off him.

        For me he is a guy that might do his job in top 20 fashion. I understand why PFF loves him. You can only judge him based on what he is doing. If we was drafted all the players in the league outside of the QB position Harris Jr would not go in the first round. I don’t think he would go in the first 3 rounds. I think many corners in the league are given tougher assignments. I bet Revis would do Harris job better even at his age. Would you really take Harris over Patrick Peterson? Would draft him over Earl Thomas and Josh Norman? I don’t think even if PFF did a podcast where they drafted the entire league that someone would take Chris Harris as the number 2 or 3 corner. Chris Harris needs to send part of his paycheck to PFF.

      • Brian

        How can u say your grades are completely accurate when u don’t always know the responsibilities? I mean a lot of times there’s not much that differentiates calls aside from a difference of responsibilities. I can only imagine the guesswork involved in trying to determine did the wr run the right route? Did he read it correctly? Did the qb overthrow/underthrow? Did the rb read it wrong? Did the lineman blow the block? Did the safety blow the coverage? Or the lb? Or the cb? Just a few vague examples, but there’s no possible way u can say grading is always accurate. And I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but I imagine the guys that truly excel at grading & the guesswork involved actually work for nfl teams. Just an assumption, but in my opinion, an educated one. Not that I don’t enjoy pff & fo. I just don’t live by it & I don’t think the coaches do either. There’s more to football than analytics. U cant measure Brady’s heart & clutch ability. U can’t measure watts motor. U can’t measure Rodgers backyard football ability.