Thousands of viewers will tune into the NFL’s opening weekend games – the Panthers and 49ers kick off at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday – but few will track the game like Sam Monson does.
Monson is a senior analyst for Pro Football Focus, a football analytics site that has been number-crunching online since 2007. The site’s analysts track every play during a game, including things a typical statistician would not, such as missed blocks and tackling efficiency.
“We try to separate the outcome of the play with what actually happens,” Monson said. “For example, on the stat sheet something may look like a good play, but really it’s a horrible throw.”
PFF tracks every play for all 32 teams, and 30 clubs even pay PFF for its information.
“It saves teams a lot of time, instead of them spending Monday digging around in the tape,” Monson said. “It gives them a jumpstart on the next week’s game plan. That’s the main selling point for teams.”
So, how does all that relate to the Panthers? Here are five things Monson is watching in Carolina this season:
▪ How Christian McCaffrey changes the dynamic of Carolina’s offense.
“You can’t cover him with a linebacker, and if you try 15 yards down the field, he’ll be wide open. You can’t cover him with a safety like that,” Monson said. “Having him will create a lot more of these deep throws that Cam Newton’s better at. That’s what makes him so dangerous and so special. It almost wastes him if you just use him out of the backfield.”
▪ How Cam Newton continues to be the most unique starting quarterback in the NFL, but not always for the best reason.
“No other team is able to do what they do running with their quarterback. Most teams wouldn’t even attempt it,” Monson said. “But Newton, for all the good you get on that end, will forever be one of the more inaccurate quarterbacks in the NFL. The larger the sample size, the more numbers you look at, the more his inaccuracy shows. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of making spectacular throws, but I think they’re trying to coax him into being more of a Tom Brady type with the guys they brought in.”
▪ How, for all the hype about McCaffrey, Jonathan Stewart still deserves to be the starting running back.
“Stewart is still a very good player, and he hasn’t done anything to lose the job,” Monson said. “If you want to look at the long term then McCaffrey will probably replace him, but (Stewart) is still a really solid player in the backfield doing exactly what you’d expect a running back to do, breaking tackles and such. I think he’ll be the primary bellcow in terms of rushing the ball.”
▪ How Kelvin Benjamin doesn’t always get open – and why that’s OK.
“Benjamin’s interesting because he’s huge for a wide receiver. He’s not gonna win by separation, he’s gonna win because of that big body,” Monson said. “KB can do a lot as a receiver and make a ton of really good plays, but you have to trust him to do that because you’re not gonna get a wide open look. You have to adjust your calibration to the fact that it’s Kelvin Benjamin, and the problem with doing that is sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it can make the QB look really bad.”
▪ How Luke Kuechly is even better than some people give him credit for.
“Kuechly may be one of the top five players in the NFL at any position when he’s healthy,” Monson said. “He’s fearless in terms of flowing to the ball, he has incredible range and ability in coverage that a lot of linebackers just don’t have. He’s incredibly quick at reading the play, to the point where other linebackers aren’t even in the same vicinity.”