When the 2011 collegiate football season concluded, there was no doubt who the consensus number one pick was. Cam Newton had possessed a rocket arm, the ability to run the read-option to perfection, the confidence from back stopping the Auburn Tigers to a National Title and an infectious smile. However, another quarterback with similar physical attributes was creeping up in the draft rankings. The former Neveda Wolfpack quarterback, Colin Kaepernick broke many NCAA and Western Athletic Conference records and dazzled scouts at the NFL Scouting Combine with his speed and arm strength.
During the four-day event, Newton and Kaepernick befriended each other and were even roommates throughout the entire ordeal. Although they have not been in touch since, they clearly have a mutual respect for each other other’s play from a distance.
It did not seem entirely possible at that time that Kaepernick would progress as quickly as he did, to the point where he was 5 yards away from being a potential Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. But now, as we enter week 11 of the National Football League season, Newton and Kaepernick will face off against each other for the first time, as the Panthers visit the 49ers. Let’s take a look at their respective skill sets and how they measure against each other.
Arm Strength: If we talk about quarterbacks throwing the football with the velocity that would rival the miles per hour of a Major League pitcher, Newton and Kaepernick are up there with anyone in the league. Kaepernick can wing it with the best of them. His throws are on a frozen rope and the football just explodes when it comes out of his right hand with an extremely tight spiral. It might have helped that he was a pitcher in high school and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round. He obviously opted for football, but he did throw the opening pitch at a Giants game, in which it registered at a ridiculous 87 mph. That two-seamer had some sick late movement!
Newton has similar physical attributes with a cannon arm and he can throw it 80 yards downfield off his back foot. Like Kaepernick, I have seen him make some insane throws with Brett Favre-like velocity.
This one is tough because if we’re talking about arm strength regarding deep passing, I would tend to side with Newton. If it is strictly rating who has the best 4-seam fastball, I would have to go with Kaepernick because of his days as a pitcher and his ability to throw the football with the same velocity in which he threw that opening pitch for the Giants . Both have terrific arm talent and throw the ball very lively.
Accuracy: When it comes to throwing the ball with precision, both quarterbacks have their deficiencies. Newton has been criticized in the past for being able to make the difficult throws, but misfiring on the easy ones. In his first and second season’s he was completing 60 and 57 percent of his passes. Part of the issue was poor footwork and being a strong-armed quarterback can, at times, absolve you of some bad technique. We see the likes of Newton and Jay Cutler throw off his back foot and make it look good, but that is a recipe for throwing the ball poorly and missing your intended receiver. This season, Newton had a three game stretch in which he completed 77, 88 and 72 percent of his passes. That was the best three game stretch of his career by a long shot. I think the key for Newton has been play-calling, where Mike Shula has reduced his ‘big-play hunting’ by calling more slants, hook routes and three-step drops for his strong-armed quarterback. His footwork has also been improved and he is setting his feet when he throws. This season he is completing 63 percent of his passes and looking more accurate than ever.
Kaepernick drew rave reviews about his accuracy last season during the 49ers Super Bowl run. Although his 63 percent completion percentage was solid, keep in mind that he was coming in mid-season as a second year player who did not play a snap in 2011. Those same accuracy concerns were the reason for him dropping in the 2011 draft . This season, he is completing 59 percent of his passes and he is struggling with many of the issues Newton previously had. Footwork has been a problem, as well as throwing accurately under pressure, but one can also attribute it to having minimal options on the outside. Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham have not played a snap all year, although the latter, Manningham, will suit up during this contest.
Verdict: This is another close one, but when measuring accuracy and how the NFL is all about ‘what you’ve done for me lately’, I would have to go with Cam Newton who has made great strides since last season.
Running/Read-Option: Both quarterbacks broke out as read-option specialists. Newton ran it to perfection while at Auburn and Kaepernick operating at Nevada using the Pistol formation in Chris Ault’s offense. Originally, it was a great way to utilize the running prowess of these two athletic marvels, while easing them in with their passing talent. The read-option allows the quarterback to use the threat of the running game and draw in the linebackers and safeties. If the quarterback pulls the ball back, it makes for a much easier read. Newton and Kaepernick excelled with this type of scheme.
Kaepernick’s rushing attempts and yards through his first eight starts last season versus his first eight this season, have been virtually identical.
2012 (excluding the playoffs): 50 carries, 304 rushing yards,
2013: 49 carries, 294 yards,
Compared to Cam Newton, who had 126 attempts in his 2011 rookie season, then 127 in his 2012 sophomore season, if we compare the first 8 games of last season to this season, there is no decrease.
2012: 55 carries, 347 yards
2013: 55 carries, 251 yards
Both quarterbacks are averaging the same amount of carries and virtually similar rushing yards, although Newton has roughly 100 yards less. What I am definitely seeing is less read-option keeps and designed runs but more scrambles due to breakdowns in the pocket. The prevailing thought would be to preserve their health and have them taking less of a beating and forcing them to become better pocket passers, by reducing the designed runs.
So, who is more dangerous when they break contain? Well, they are both different types of running quarterbacks in my view.
Cam Newton is a bulldozer when it comes running the heavy-set quarterback keeper near the red zone and even more so at the goal line. There is no quarterback who is better at calling his own number near the goal than Newton and quite frankly, it is not even close.
As evidenced last week, Newton is incredibly hard to bring down. There was one play against the Falcons where he broke 3 tackles inside the pocket and fired a dart to Steve Smith. That was a play that evoked memories of Randall Cunningham that I cannot see any other player in the league making, including Kaepernick.
As for the former Nevada Wolfpack star, he is a better player running in space who excels outside the defensive end and linebacker contain (like he did repeatedly against the Packers in 2012 playoffs) because his speed and acceleration is at an elite level for a quarterback, let alone a running back. Newton is a more sustainable runner because of his size and difficulty to bring, where as Kaepernick is more slender and has better acceleration and top-end speed. Ultimately, Kaepernick is the better runner between both 20 yard lines, but I prefer Newton near the red zone.
Verdict: This one is very difficult and it is two-fold. Newton climbs the pocket very well and can break tackles with the best of them, but from a pure running standpoint, especially when contain is broken and in the open field, I would side with Kaepernick by a very slim margin.
GQ Covers: Since we have a draw, the tie breaker will be both quarterbacks dawning the covers of GQ. I won’t stray too much off topic regarding this and I will just leave Newton’s cover here and Kaepernick’s cover here. Let’s just say Newton wins this one in a landslide for, I think, obvious reasons.
Verdict: Newton, again, for obvious reasons.
In all serious though, both quarterbacks are still a work in progress and it is hard to believe they are only 26 and 24 years old respectively. Last year, Kaepernick had a better passer rating than Newton (98 to 86), but this season Newton has simply been the better player and has a better quarterback rating than Kaepernick (93 to 87).
Both have had their ups and downs, no question about it. Their strengths are similar as are their weaknesses, Ultimately, their upsides are tremendous and it would not be a stretch that we see them propelling themselves as top-five quarterbacks in the next three to four years.
The final decision
As we go through the tale of the tape and this heavyweight bout goes to distance, my personal preference is with Cam because of his size and red zone ability to run like a fullback. That type of running skill, even in five years when he is slowed down and he loses a step or two, will still be prevalent due to his ability, similar to Ben Roethlisberger, to avoid the would-be tacklers. More importantly, Newton has matured considerably after being criticized for poor body-language in his sophomore season and is nearly a full two years older than Kaepernick, despite both of them being drafted in the same year.
The gap is that close that I have to find an arbitrary reason to rate one over another. It is a testament to how closely they are rated as players. The biggest benefactor, aside from their respective teams, are we the fans ,who get to enjoy them making great plays and elevating their already terrific play for the next decade.
Finally, for Sunday’s matchup, look for both players to use their feet quite a bit as they will be facing defenses that know how to rush the passer. Kaepernick has struggled against pressure and the Panthers feature one of the most feared defensive fronts in the game, led by Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Newton will be in for a long game as well with Aldon Smith returning, albeit in passing situations only.
You can watch this matchup tomorrow at 4pm on Fox.