While the top of the NFC South may not be as competitive as we thought leading up to this NFL season, there's little doubt that moving forward there is no division in the league with more talent at the QB position. Even as Josh Freeman takes a step back in his 3rd season there's Cam Newton to be right in the mix with Matt Ryan in terms of the #2 QB in the South this season.
As stated, Newton is having a truly remarkable rookie campaign. Detractors will place a huge emphasis on the Panthers' record, or his TD/INT ratio, but it's important in analyzing Newton to look past that and see how Carolina are using him. While players like Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford are asked to throw jump balls and quick slants to reliable receivers inside the red zone, Cam Newton is asked to become his team's running back in these situations. The result of these endeavors is a record breaking 13 touchdowns on the ground, which broke Steve Grogan's record for rushing TDs by a quarterback, a record lasting over 30 years. Last week Newton added three such scores on the ground to one passing touchdown, and more importantly it was his second straight game without a turnover- critical in the Panthers two wins.
This week Newton and his Panthers face the Atlanta Falcons at home. Almost two months ago when these teams last met Newton played his worst game as a pro, he looked flustered in the pocket and that resulted in numerous interceptions. As with all rookies it's hard to know whether it will be more good than bad on Sunday, or the inverse- but I have a feeling Newton will play better than that 10/16 game.
It's truly sad that injuries derailed Julio Jones' rookie season. Prior to missing games due to injury he was on pace for a 1,000 yard receiving season, which would have put him in the mix for offensive rookie of the year honors, now it seems he's more destined to have to wait to get his credit as a receiver. Last week against Houston he totaled 68 yards on four receptions, which is really par for the course for the Alabama receiver. His unique combination of speed, size, and strength make him a player who presents match-up problems whenever he takes the field.
These match-up issues will be extremely prevalent this week against the Carolina Panthers. Working against #2 corner Captain Munnerlyn there's a good chance Jones will abuse the smaller Munnerlyn who has struggled with mental lapses and bad decisions in 2011. A big play receiver, Jones will be able to split the Panthers zone and I think he's due for a big day on Sunday.
There are a lot of rookies playing great football right now. In an early, albeit premature evaluation it appears this class could be one of the better ones in the last decade. This causes a player like Clayborn, who's on pace for over 35 tackles and 7.5 sacks to get lost in the shuffle. What makes Clayborn's season impressive is the lack of reliable inside pressure from his defensive tackles. There are some 4-3 defensive tackles who get their sacks as a result of single coverage allowing them to come unblocked, but in the case of this rookie he's being asked to do a lot of the work on his own.
Last week against Carolina wasn't his most impressive game statistically, but it has to be mentioned that he was working against perennial pro-bowl LT Jordan Gross. Nevertheless, Clayborn still managed to get into the backfield and get pressure on Cam Newton. This week he faces Blaine Gabbert and the Jacksonville Jaguars; not much sense explaining it further, but lets say I think he can have a big day.
Sean Payton is trying to pitch this idea that Ingram is the offensive rookie of the year, and quite frankly I don't get it. I understand wanting to prop up your own players, but if he truly believes that... well... I don't know what to say. 'Consistently inconsistent' is the best way to phrase Ingram's body of work this season. At times he's looked like the dominant, powerful running back we saw at Alabama, and at other times he looks lost in the backfield, not hitting holes with power or being able to crack the second level. This was the story last week against Detroit where he managed only 3.4 yards per carry, and while he got his 5th rushing TD of the season in the end it just isn't enough to give him praise.
This week the Saints face the Tennessee Titans who give up a lot of yards on the ground. There's a good chance the Saints could jump to a big lead early and coast with Ingram for much of the game. There's a potential there that he could have a big day, but as consistently inconsistent as he is it's near impossible to predict it.