There are few players on the Carolina Panthers roster who are more contentiously debated than James Anderson. To some, he's an elite NFL linebacker whose tackle statistics alone show his ability, whereas others think he's mediocre and overpaid. Today we hope to dispel the myths on both sides surrounding the outside linebacker, and get a better sense for who he is as a player.
In order to first understand James Anderson you need to first become comfortable with the idea he's not an elite linebacker; and that's okay. As solid as Anderson is as a tackler, and an always reliable stalwart, he's not the kind of player who makes a huge impact on a game. That doesn't mean he's not important to the Panthers, because oftentimes his impact is such that he can prevent a Carolina loss, but he isn't the guy who will win games for you. There are some outside linebackers in the NFL with this quality-guys like Lance Briggs (five years ago) and Von Miller, but the flipside of these aggressive, game-changing OLBs is that they're not as reliable every down like Anderson.
More after the jump
The love James Anderson gets from the fan base comes organically, but there's little doubting that a good portion of it come from reflected admiration for former linebacker Will Witherspoon. In many ways Witherspoon and Anderson are identical players; both reliable, but neither are stellar in their own right. However, the Carolina Panthers defense became markedly worse when Witherspoon left for St. Louis, and the Panthers were forced to jury-rig together their linebackers, and quickly found out that Witherspoon was their glue. Did this cause the Panthers to over-value Anderson when it came time for a new contract? Probably. The front office experienced first-hand what it was like to lose reliability, and with a new coach coming in it was vital to have consistency. His cap hit which will be over $4 million from 2013-2015 is more than he's worth, but what's a couple of million between friends? Finding reliable linebackers is not as easy as it seems, and ultimately the cost in understandable.
Now we get into the nitty-gritty; away from the ‘hows' and ‘whys', and into what James Anderson brings to the field. A recent article denigrating Anderson's 2011 performance caused for furor on CSR, and understandably so. The writer wasn't wholly wrong, but I think it was misguided to paint Anderson's career solely with last year's paint. Every time you install new coaches and coordinators there are growing pains, and with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis being out it was Anderson's turn to shoulder a burden of being player, and leader-- a role he wasn't accustomed to. Along with the rest of the defense he struggled at times, had a few good plays, but you saw a guy who was out of his comfort zone for much of the year, and looked on the field to be trying to do too much. Coincidentally, this was something Jon Beason struggled with in 2010 during Thomas Davis' absence; it looked like he was trying to do too much, and as a result wasn't as effective as we'd seen him in past years.
To get a more accurate representation of Anderson's career it's far more pertinent to go back to 2010 to see how he operated when he was able to stay in his lane, and lean on the players around him. According to Football Outsiders, here's how Anderson stacked up against other linebackers in 2010:
- 3.5 yards allowed per play (28th in the NFL)
- 64% stop rate (38th in the NFL)
- 2.8 yards allowed per run play (29th in the NFL)
- 4.7 yards allowed per pass play (26th in the NFL)
These statistics support the notion that Anderson is a very solid linebacker, but he's not elite. His average ranking of 30th puts him squarely in the center of the pack league-wide, but it's more about what he does for his team than what he does to impress the rest of the football world. His adjusted percentage of team stops is 15%, good for 17th in the NFL among outside linebackers, and clearly showing his importance to the Carolina Panthers.
In James Anderson elite? In the grand scheme of things, probably not. However, it's okay to be okay with that. He remains one of the most reliable Carolina Panthers game in, game out-- and consistently plays at a high level. His role inside the organization is vital, and that can be enough without desiring him to be recognized on a national level. He may be a jack of all trades, but that doesn't mean he isn't fun to watch on Sunday.