Thanks for the memories, Cam. Sorry, but it’s time for you to move on. We can’t count on you to stay healthy and can’t pay you big bucks to sit on the sideline.
Such is the message that soon will be delivered by Panthers general manager Marty Hurney to the 2015 NFL MVP who led Carolina to Super Bowl 50. It’s the logical move for the franchise to make with the quarterback who was placed on IR with a Lisfranc injury almost a full year after a shoulder injury cost him the final two games of a 7-9 season and required offseason surgery. No more holding a roster spot in hopes of a late-season recovery and return.
Newton was clearly not in peak form or fully healthy as he struggled with a 56 percent completion rate, no touchdowns, 1 interception and -2 rushing yards through losses to the Rams and Bucs to open this season before the foot injury cost him the final 14 games.
Newton’s recent injury problems and high salary next season, combined with Kyle Allen’s quality play for the most part and a highly regarded 2020 QB draft class, will surely end the 2011 No. 1 overall pick’s tenure in Carolina.
The biggest problem for Newton is his timing contract-wise. Had he negotiated a new deal before the injuries piled up, with $100 million or so in guarantees now common with quality starting QBs, Hurney and coach Ron Rivera would be forced to be patient while Newton recovers from his foot injury before returning him to the lineup next season. But with Newton’s contract having just one season to go, the $2 million dead money hit on the Panthers’ salary cap is easy to absorb while they reap a $19 million cap savings once he is released.
In order to avoid a potential injury grievance, Hurney will wait until the Panthers’ team doctor says Newton’s foot is sufficiently healed before releasing him. The GM will hope that happens before the start of the 2020 league year in March so the Panthers don’t have to carry his $21.1 million cap number into free agency.
With a projected $43 million in 2020 cap space including Newton, the Panthers can wait until he is healthy before letting him go. Carolina will still have the money to add players in free agency, and they can use some of the Newton savings after his exit on an inevitable extension to make Christian McCaffrey, the NFL’s best dual threat player, the league’s highest-paid back.
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At 31, a healthy Newton is better than a lot of starting QBs in the league. Despite his stats being down, he led Carolina to the playoffs with a 11-5 record in 2017 and played well in a close playoff loss in New Orleans. He had a better year statistically last season even as he struggled through the shoulder pain that eventually shut him down.
Hurney also surely believes Newton still has value if healthy, but I doubt the GM will offer a reduced-salary-plus-incentives deal — which Newton would surely decline, preferring to hit free agency. Hurney will try to trade him to a QB-hungry team. But it’s doubtful any GM would want to inherit Newton’s 2020 base salary of $18.6 million (plus his $500,000 offseason workout bonus) when they figure he can be signed for less in an incentive-laden contract once he’s released. It’s also highly doubtful Newton would agree to a sign-and-trade deal involving a pay reduction, as he will prefer a competition to sign him.
Newton first will have to prove to team doctors around the league that his shoulder and foot are sound. Then he will have to swallow some pride and accept a slightly lower base salary — likely in the $10 million-$15 million range — plus big roster bonuses and performance incentives. Those bonuses and incentives would bring him up to the $25 million range if he returns to his three-time Pro Bowl level of play and gets a team into the playoffs.
Newton is a competitor, and he will be out to prove the Panthers gave up on him too soon. It wouldn’t be shocking to see a motivated Newton make a comeback along the lines of Andrew Luck last season if he is able to get healthy and land with a team that has a good supporting cast.
Who could that be?
Nashville is close to Newton’s hometown of Atlanta, and the Titans are a decent team that will be moving on from Marcus Mariota and probably from Ryan Tannehill, too. Tampa Bay has some talented receivers to entice Newton if the Bucs decide to part ways with Jameis Winston.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is fully capable of throwing big money at Newton if he thinks Dwayne Haskins needs more development time. Or how about the Bears if Mitchell Trubisky continues to regress? The Dolphins could be in play with their current QB mess, as could the Broncos if they’re not yet sold on Drew Lock. (And we know John Elway loves signing veteran QBs who are former stars.) But Miami and Denver could well be choosing a talented rookie passer high in April’s draft.
Meanwhile, Hurney and his scouting staff will be closely watching the top college QBs.
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If I’m in Hurney’s shoes, I’m letting Newton go and giving Allen a slightly better deal — at least incentive-wise — than what he is scheduled to receive under an exclusive rights tender for a player who has one credited season ($585,000 in 2020). Then I’m drafting a QB in the first or second round from this talented incoming class and letting that player compete with Allen for the starting job.
It’s almost as if Hurney was practicing his farewell speech when he said of Newton upon placing the QB on IR, “He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve been around during my 20-plus years in the league.” The Carolina GM will be repeating a version of that statement in the coming offseason as he bids farewell to the soon-to-be former face of the franchise.
Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.