James Dator asked Two years in: Which QB does Cam Newton most closely resemble?. My response: Steve McNair. Cam Newton is better than was Steve McNair in several ways, true. But Newton shares some of the strengths - and weaknesses - that McNair did, and in other ways is worse than was McNair. But I will summarize it here:
A) Like McNair, field vision is not Newton's biggest strength.
B) Like McNair, pinpoint accuracy on short routes isn't his biggest strength.
C) Like McNair, quick reads/releases isn't his biggest strength.
D) Like McNair, Newton can compensate for A-C with running ability (and Newton is a better runner than was McNair).
E) Like McNair, Newton is a very good intermediate and deep ball thrower who can consistently get the ball to covered WRs.
F) Like McNair, Newton is best when complemented by a great offensive line and strong running game (and I base this on Newton's incredible national championship and Heisman season at Auburn).
Steve McNair's best season - not in terms of yards or TDs, but in efficiency and team success - was in 1999 when he led the Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl. That was not the year that the Titans had their best OL, running game, WRs or defense, nor was it the year that they had the most accommodating schedule. However, it was the year that McNair had two productive pass-catching TEs. Pro Bowler Frank Wycheck was the starter and veteran Jackie Harris was the backup, but the Titans often played two TE formations (out of necessity because the WRs weren't that good as opposed to design) and in those cases Harris lined up at TE and Wycheck as the H-back. And when both guys were on the field at the same time, the Titans' passing attack was almost unstoppable.
Make no mistake, it was not due to the abilities of Wycheck and Harris, who were pretty good, but should not be mistaken for a Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis, Shannon Sharpe, David Witten etc. Indeed, Greg Olsen has more natural ability than Wycheck ever had, and Jackie Harris was a veteran near the end of his career at that time. Instead, having the two merely capable TEs mitigated A-C above by giving him two big targets that could quickly get open on short routes in the flats or over the middle but could also release for bigger gains down the sideline or over the middle. When you added this to the running ability of McNair AND that of the tailbacks, it was a boatload to defend. Eddie George would run for 5 yards or Wycheck would catch for 7 yards to set up second and short, when McNair would then try to target Harris or one of the WRs deeper down the field. If you made it, great, but if you didn't it would set up a 3rd and short where they would roll McNair out towards the hot receiver with the other WRs, TEs and the RBs blocking. There simply weren't enough defenders on the field to cover both the the hot WR and the scramble, and even if there were, McNair had the option of pulling up and throwing across the field to an open guy on the other side of his roll-out. (Trust me, this was far superior to the read option.) Sadly, the Titans let Jackie Harris go in free agency in a totally bogus cost-cutting move (Harris wasn't getting paid that much!) that was similar to the strange decision not to bring back Jeremy Shockey last season, and that devastatingly efficient offense was never seen again. (Attempts to draft someone to replace Harris misfired, and by the time they finally got a second TE, Wycheck was old, injured and ineffective.)
I say if this offense worked with McNair, it will work with Newton. I don't even need to speculate on this: we have Cam Newton's record-setting rookie year to go on. I know that a lot of guys want a true #1 WR (or better yet two) so the Panthers will have what Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore, the Giants etc. have, and what Indianapolis had when they had Manning. But the Panthers don't have a QB like those teams, so why try to replicate what those teams do? You can give Cam Newton Marques Colston/Devery Henderson/Robert Meachem/Lance Moore like Drew Brees had in 2009 or a similar boatload of WR targets like Aaron Rodgers had in 2010, but if Newton is never going to have the vision/pinpoint accuracy/release of those guys, why bother?
Or you can look at it from a different angle ... give Cam Newton what Tom Brady has with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and watch him go to work. (Note: Florida TE/H-back Jordan Reed is considered to be very similar to Aaron Hernandez. Nice get for the 3rd round if the Panthers can get into it?) Since modern prototypical QB Tom Brady is the opposite of Cam Newton, maybe you won't find that too persuasive. Well consider another QB: much-maligned Ravens QB Joe Flacco. Because Flacco is an excellent intermediate and deep ball passer (even making incredible throws to guys that are covered downfield) but struggles with accuracy and consistency on the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning type short pass/whole field vision/quick release stuff, he is foolishly considered to be an above-average QB at best whose cause is simply aided by a great supporting cast. Well Flacco is a Cam Newton type passer without the running game. And what does Baltimore have? Two excellent TEs in Ed Dickson (3rd round pick) and Dennis Pitta (4th round pick). Flacco frequently went to one or the other over the middle to bail the offense - and himself - out of jams.
Another thing: the WR class isn't that good this year. So if Keenan Allen is gone by pick 15 - and he very likely will be - the other prospects appear to be 2nd and 3rd WRs. Robert Woods of USC? Second best WR on his own team. Tavon Austin? 5'9" (slot WR) from a spread system that doesn't do the run-blocking that he would have to in Carolina. DeAndre Hopkins? Bigger than Austin but also a spread guy. Terrance Williams? Spread guy who was a 3rd-4th option at Baylor just a season ago. The Tennessee guys (Patterson, Hunter and especially Da'Rick Rogers) are intriguing, but so many Vol WRs get drafted high only to fail to pan out in the NFL (and the same is true of Clemson WRs, or just Clemson players generally).
Further: the changes of getting real help from a TE are better than from a WR. Let's face it: WRs only truly help if they are #1 or very good #2 or #3 guys. Unless the Panthers draft a guy who gives them 800 yards and 5 TDs as a rookie, he won't even get playing time ahead of Smitty, LaFell, or Hixon/Ginn/Gettis. But Jeremy Shockey had a real impact with 455 yards and 4 TDs in Newton's rookie season. More to the point, Shockey went to 4 Pro Bowls and garnered two Super Bowl rings despite only twice surpassing 700 passing yards. So where a WR would have to be almost Pro Bowl caliber to provide the Panthers with immediate help, a TE would only have to be pretty good. Basically, a capable OG or OT combined with a pretty good 2nd TE would completely transform the Panthers offense both in the air and on the ground. On the ground because, er, TE's block too, and running Williams, Stewart and Tolbert out of 2 TE formations would be outstanding. I cannot be the only one who feels this way. Also, as run blocking has never been considered to be Greg Olsen's strong suit - it was the main stated reason why Chicago traded him - getting a better run blocking TE who can also catch would address that weakness. It would also give the Panthers more flexibility. For example, you could put FB Tolbert, RB Stewart and both TEs (with one TE lining up as a WR) on the field in a power formation in short yardage situations without necessarily having to run the football with Stewart or Newon, even though defenses would be forced to assume that you would.
Now hopefully the Panthers will be able to reel in Kellen Winslow II (who the Panthers may or may not be interested in) or someone similar and fill that need the same way that they apparently have with their WRs and CBs: veterans with potential on one year deals that can be re-signed next season. If not, better Jordan Reed in the 3rd (yes, I am hoping that the Panthers can in fact trade down and still get an elite DT) than Tavon Austin in the 1st because Reed is what would make a player like Cam Newton better. To put it another way, had the Panthers retained or replaced Jeremy Shockey, Newton might not have had his underperforming - and at times disastrous - first half of the 2012 season to begin with. Sure, the Panthers brought back Ben Hartsock, but the journeyman is more of a blocker: 312 receiving yards on 60 receptions in 9 years.
I earlier stated my theory that the Panthers' lack of attention to OL and DL in free agency despite having the money to make a couple of moves means that they attend to see what they can find at those spots in the draft first. I hope that the same is true regarding the TE spot. I equally hope that if they do grab a TE in the draft or free agency with pass catching acumen, that Mike Shula realizes what he has and puts them both on the field at the same time.