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How the OBJ and Cam Newton Signings Change the Playoff Picture

How the OBJ and Cam Newton Signings Change the Playoff Picture

It is not a coincidence that the Rams and Panthers made significant in-season signings on Thursday. They have been two of the most aggressive teams on the trade market with the Rams bringing in Von Miller and the Panthers acquiring Stephon Gilmore and C.J. Henderson (in separate trades). That mindset carried over to the Free Agent market with the OBJ and Cam Newton signings occurring within hours of one another.  

Fundamentally, roster construction is a year-round pursuit. Newton is a former league MVP and at one point was the most dangerous player in all of football. Odell Beckham Jr. is a three-time Pro Bowler who is not far removed from being one of the best WRs in the NFL. Both of them signing on November 11th is illustrative of the fact that there are always opportunities to improve your team. Carolina and Los Angeles understand this and are not afraid to strike when the right opportunity presents itself. 

It is not just a roster construction philosophy that unites the Rams and Panthers. Based on multiple different efficiency ratings — PFF, Football Outsiders, and ESPN — they rank first and second in hardest remaining schedules, respectively. They also both find themselves one game back from their desired spot in the playoff standings. The 7-2 Rams are looking to catch the 8-1 Cardinals, not only in the division, but also in the race for the top seed in the NFC. The 4-5 Panthers sit half a game behind the Falcons, who they beat on the road in Week 8, for the 7th seed and final playoff spot. 

While it’s clear that LA and Carolina both improved today, here’s why the OBJ and Cam Newton signings are so impactful:

Odell Beckham Jr. 

The Rams signing OBJ is a great risk/reward signing in that there is little risk with the potential for substantial upside. They gave him $1.25M with $3M in team-based incentives, but Los Angeles didn’t have to give up any draft picks in compensation, which would have been the real cost. As for the reward, there are three primary reasons why OBJ could prove to be a difference-maker for the Rams.

1) 11 Personnel Usage:

No team in the NFL uses 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) more than the Rams (86.16%). Washington is the next highest (77.89%), and they are the only other team to run more than 75% of their offensive plays out of 11. Because of the Rams preferred personnel grouping, their 3rd WR will get substantial playing time. With the departure of DeSean Jackson, Van Jefferson was their third receiving option behind Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. OBJ will likely take over that role.

2) Importance of Secondary WRs:

Unlike offensive line — a weak-link position group — WR is often considered a superstar driven position. But there is evidence to suggest that this is not the case, indicating that WR could also be somewhat weak-link oriented. Earlier this year, PFF found that the performance of a team’s 2nd and 3rd best receivers correlates more with Expected Points Added than that of a team’s best receiver. 

This is particularly important for the Rams. Their best WR, Cooper Kupp, leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,019) and receiving TD (10). Since Kupp will garner the defense’s focus, Beckham and Woods will be crucial. Based on PFF’s study, their presence could be even more important than Kupp in the playoffs. 

3) The Green Bay Packers:

According to multiple reports, Green Bay was Odell’s second choice, and he would have filled a clear need as their WR2 behind Davante Adams. Though the Rams must focus on catching the Cardinals in the division, they also have their sights set on the NFC’s top seed and a first-round bye. Green Bay and Los Angeles are tied for second in the conference and sit 1 game behind the Cardinals.

Cam Newton

This is a great signing by Carolina because Newton could potentially be their starter for this season and next season. With an underwhelming 2022 QB Class incoming, signing Newton gives the Panthers the flexibility to wait for the right opportunity to draft a QB. Sam Darnold will also likely be back next season, as they picked up his fifth-year option ($18.9M), which is guaranteed. 

Another motivating factor here is the NFC playoff picture. The top five teams in the NFC are all but set — barring unforeseen circumstances, it will be the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Dallas Cowboys in some order. But the last two playoff spots are up for grabs.

Even though Carolina is 4-5, they’re only half a game behind Atlanta for the 7th seed. And their other divisional rival, New Orleans, occupies the 6th seed. Likewise, given the injury to Jameis Winston, it is not implausible to think the Saints could have been a suitor for Newton. The Panthers get their QB, giving them a chance to compete for the playoffs all while potentially keeping him away from a rival. 

To do so, they gave Newton a fairly lucrative contract considering the timing. It’s a 1-year deal worth up to $10M in incentives, but essentially a $6M deal; $4.5M is fully guaranteed, and there is a $1.5M roster bonus. He can earn up to the $10M figure if he can lead Carolina to the Super Bowl like he did in 2015-2016.