Cam Newton continues to wait for a full 2020 commitment from the Panthers, and the Panthers continue to wait to see how healthy Newton will be coming off a season-ending foot injury.
But with NFL free agency around the corner, the clock is ticking for Carolina to finally decide whether its franchise quarterback will return for a 10th season.
The Panthers have entered semi-rebuilding mode with new coach Matt Rhule. On one hand, Rhule said he “absolutely” would like Newton as his QB for the first year of a new offense under first-year coordinator Joe Brady. On the other hand, trading Newton ahead of his age-31 season, before he becomes a free agent in 2021, would save the team $19.1 million in salary cap space.
Newton sticking around at a reasonable price to be the unquestioned starter makes sense. Looking at him as a bridge QB and putting him in prove-it mode does not. As for his trade value, Newton is unique compared to the QBs on the free-agent market because he has such a high ceiling and is not the typical caretaker type teams tend to acquire in these situations.
With all that in mind and knowing what we know now, here’s ranking the best fits for Newton, including right where he is.
1. Tennessee Titans
When Newton enjoyed his MVP season in 2015, the Panthers had a prolific running game, a top defense and a passing game featuring big plays from wide receivers and good tight end production. The Titans can provide the same kind of support for Newton with Derrick Henry, Mike Vrabel and A.J. Brown, among others.
Tennessee was on the brink of an AFC championship with Ryan Tannehill, but Newton carries much higher passing and rushing upside when healthy and is a little younger. Professionally, the move would give Newton another good shot at playoff success, and personally, it would keep him in the South.
Tennessee officials made it point to say during the Combine the team is keeping all of its quarterback options beyond re-signing Tannehill open. With the team in win-now mode and with no glaring holes, the Titans going after Newton makes a ton of sense.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
After parting with Philip Rivers, the Chargers are the only team in the NFL with a guaranteed open starting spot heading into free agency. Coach Anthony Lynn has said the team is OK with promoting backup Tyrod Taylor if needed, but it’s clear Los Angeles should weigh all high-end rookie and veteran alternatives.
Even if the Chargers don’t re-sign Melvin Gordon as expected, Newton would mesh well in their offense, assuming tight end Hunter Henry is re-signed to flank Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler in the passing game. Lynn has done well with running QBs (see Taylor in Buffalo) in the past, and Newton brings a dimension that Rivers did not.
Los Angeles isn’t a bad place for a rejuvenation, and the Chargers with their defense can rebound to their playoff form of 2018. They have every reason to call the Panthers.
3. Carolina Panthers
Brady’s influence at LSU helped Joe Burrow have the best college passing season ever, culminating with a Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Brady, with his NFL experience, can adjust to Newton’s skill set and give the QB a much-needed boost late in his career.
The Panthers knew they would need to reconstruct their defense in many places for 2020 even before losing centerpiece Luke Kuechly to retirement. The offense will have more of a burden to win games, and between Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Ian Thomas, Carolina has plenty to lift Newton to a comeback season.
Carolina’s alternatives are a high-drafted rookie or another free-agent veteran. Sticking with Door No. 1, though, might end up being the best option without too much of an investment. At worst, if it doesn’t work out with Newton in a contract year, the Panthers can dive head first into a draft class that should include Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields in 2021.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are the hardest team in the NFL to read in terms of their quarterback plans for 2020. They are thinking about simply re-signing Jameis Winston, but they won’t go overboard with years and money. There have been hints about other free agents, from Rivers to Teddy Bridgewater to even Tom Brady.
Although Newton going to an NFC South rival would be weird, his going to a Bruce Arians offense would not be weird. The Bucs offer a top-notch receiving corps and a suddenly formidable defense. They should be focusing their draft picks on their blocking and running game.
Newton’s big arm would work with Arians’ downfield passing concepts, and his mobility would be a nice bonus to both extend plays and supplement the rushing attack. The obvious hurdle would be pulling off a deal with a division rival, but there’s a precedent for such a QB move. In 2010, the Eagles traded a 33-year-old Donovan McNabb to the Redskins.
Arians would like his team to be more risk-adverse at quarterback after Winston’s interception fest of 2019. But a calculated chance on Newton, even at the cost at giving a South team some helpful compensation, could be the move to push Tampa Bay back to the playoffs.
5. New England Patriots
The Patriots look like they’re headed toward a breakup with Brady in free agency. Based on their current makeup, they will be looking to win more with their running game and defense, which is basically what they were in both 2018 (Super Bowl champs) and 2019 (wild-card playoff losers).
Newton with Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick doesn’t sound like a reasonable fit, but the Patriots will be prepared to embrace the challenge of a QB who is much younger than and different from Brady. Newton can be that independent, team-lifting dual threat again, but he is better served being more dependent on the assets around him.
The Patriots would do everything possible to adjust to Newton’s skill set and a find a way to be one step ahead of the rest of the league offensively.