By Josh Kipnis
This past weekend, we all witnessed history as Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers broke the record for most passing yards in a quarterback’s NFL debut. Even with his astonishing 110.4 passer rating, 2 TD, 422-yard performance, Newton still has a long way to go before he can claim kingship over the division. With Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Josh Freeman leading the other three teams in the NFC South, 2011 should be a very promising year for this division.
Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)
Background: Brees, who was signed by the Saints in 2006, led the Saints to their first ever Super Bowl victory in 2009. Winner of the MVP award in that game, he is also the Saints’ all-time leader in passing yards. The five-time pro-bowler was the AP Player of the Year in 2008 and has thrown over 4,000 yards each season with the Saints.
Strengths: Brees’ most eye-catching strength has to be his pinpoint accuracy. In fact, “pinpoint” cannot even describe how well this guy can hit a receiver downfield. In his “SportsScience” debut, Brees was asked to throw a football at an archery target from 20 yards away. Out of the ten throws he took, he hit the bulls-eye all ten times. Not even Olympic archers hit the bulls-eye that much.
Weaknesses: Many scouts questioned the Purdue alum’s height (6-0) as he entered the NFL draft back in 2001. His arm strength is also below average compared to the competition around the league. Nonetheless, do his weaknesses even matter at this point? He is unquestionably a top five QB in the NFL, and has the Saints in the Super Bowl conversation every year.
Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)
Background: Ryan is one of two rookie quarterbacks (Peyton Manning) in NFL history to throw over 3,000 yards in his rookie season, making him the obvious choice for the 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Ryan led the Falcons to the playoffs his rookie season and again last season. Ryan continues to show signs of improvement; increasing his touchdown totals in each of the three seasons he has been a pro.
Strengths: Ryan shows a great balance of attributes; he might not be the most accurate or have the strongest arm, but he is definitely above average in both categories. So what’s so incredible about “Matty Ice?” In just three seasons in the NFL, Ryan has led the Falcons to eight 4th quarter comebacks and thirteen game winning drives. I’d say the nickname holds true.
Weaknesses: Leading the Falcons to the playoffs twice is a great feat, however, Atlanta lost in both of those openers. His 0-2 record in the playoffs is the only part of Ryan’s game holding him back from an elite status.
Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay Bucs)
Background: Freeman broke the Bucs’ rookie records in passing yards (1,855) and TD passes (10) back in 2009. In just his second NFL season, he blew those numbers out of the water, throwing for 1,600 more yards, 15 more TDs, and 12 less INTs. Just 23 years old out of Kansas State, Freeman is posting numbers close to Brad Johnson in ’03, the last time Tampa Bay won the Lombardi Trophy.
Strengths: Coaches have to wipe the drool from their mouths when they see this guy throw on a pair of shoulder pads. Standing at 6-6 and weighing 248 lbs, Freeman is an absolute monster at the quarterback position. Add his mobility and arm strength to the list, and defensive coordinators suddenly find their tail between their legs.
Weaknesses: The major flaw in his rookie season was turnovers. Freeman ranked 4th in the NFL with 18 interceptions in 2009. However, it seems he found a solution to the problem during the off-season because he threw 12 less INTs in 2010. It sounds crazy, but does this guy have a weakness? Maybe his only limitation is Tampa Bay’s receiving corp.
Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers)
Background: As mentioned earlier, Newton displayed one of the best rookie performances ever, by throwing for 422 yards in his NFL debut. The Panthers have to be ecstatic seeing their number one overall pick playing this well. Last season, Panthers’ starter Jimmy Clausen never threw more than 300 yards and one touchdown in a game; Newton was better in both categories in just his first NFL start. The Heisman Trophy winner and NCAA National Champ from Auburn posted the 2nd highest yardage total among all QBs in Week 1.
Strengths: Almost identical in size to Josh Freeman, 6-6, 248 lbs, Newton is another beast among men. His combination of size, arm strength, and mobility made it impossible for Carolina to pass on this young stud. Although it is too early in his career to say his mentality is a strength, you have to love how the 22-year old carries himself in an interview. Following his epic performance, all Newton could think about was not being able to lead his team to victory, his first loss in over a year. “The last time I lost a game was Navarro Junior College,” Newton said. “What do you want me to say, it feels great? It is not a comfortable feeling for me.”
Weaknesses: The only flaw in his rookie debut came in red zone efficiency. On the final drive of the game, the Panthers had a first down on the Arizona 11-yard line. Newton’s next four plays were incomplete passes, and the fifth fell short of the end zone.
No question about it, the NFC South is stacked at the quarterback position. With Drew Brees continuing to display his pro-bowl career, and young gun-slingers Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman, and Cam Newton entering the NFL’s spotlight, one thing is for sure: defensive backs around the league are all starting to shake as they see NFC South teams on their schedule.