After an injury-plagued season, Newton and the Panthers have come to a crossroads
The Carolina Panthers answered one of the biggest questions of their offseason on Jan. 7 with the hire of Baylor head coach Matt Rhule to replace Ron Rivera. Now comes the next question: What to do with Cam Newton?
Carolina has one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league in Newton, but he has not been the same since his 2015 MVP campaign. His yards per attempt fell below seven in 2016 and '17, and he could not throw deep in 2018 because a shoulder injury zapped his arm strength. This season was essentially lost because of a Linsfranc injury that sidelined him after Week 2.
Newton is entering the final year of his contract in 2020, but only $2 million of the $21.1 million is guaranteed. The Panthers won't cut him because that's a reasonable salary for a starting quarterback in today's NFL, but they could always trade him for draft picks if they believe they have a different answer.
Rhule did not tip his hand either way during his introductory press conference, although he stressed that he hasn't had time to meet with his players or learn too much about the team. The arrival of 30-year-old offensive coordinator Joe Brady also will have a sizeable impact.
The Panthers and Rhule — who will have input on the team's future assistant GM — aren't likely to make a decision on Newton for a while. He's still recovering from December surgery on his foot, which will likely scare off other teams from trading for him. But it's a major decision that will change the trajectory of the franchise.
Why Rhule's arrival means Newton will stay
Rhule seems to be a particularly strong fit with Newton, since he ran an RPO-heavy offense at Baylor, just like the Panthers have the last two seasons under former offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Rhule is pretty flexible, having run a more standard, run-heavy offense at Temple before that, but he had the most success with a wide-open attack at Baylor, even with a weak offensive line that is reminiscent of the Panthers' O-line issues.
It's worth noting that Newton may not be the runner he once was — especially after returning from several injuries — but he still gives Rhule far more options than he ever had with Charlie Brewer or P.J. Walker. Rhule also does not have a background in quarterbacks, unlike some candidates the Panthers had considered like Josh McDaniels. He may have less of an interest in developing his own quarterback and be content to roll with Newton.
What's more interesting is the relationship between Brady and Newton. Brady comes from the Sean Payton coaching tree and has an emphasis on high-percentage throws. Although Newton only had a 59.8 percent completion rate in his MVP season, he completed a career-best 67.9 percent of his throws in 2018 and showed he can thrive under that type of offense. And Drew Brees may not be mobile, but Payton and Brady have been happy to use Taysom Hill and Joe Burrow in the occasional designed run, which fits well with Newton's skillset.
As one final note, one of the few things that Rhule has said is that you need a good quarterback to win in the NFL, and he recognizes that Newton's done a lot of winning in Charlotte. Considering Newton has explicitly said he wants to stay with the Panthers, building around the former MVP may be the fastest way to bringing divisional titles back to the Carolinas.
Why Rhule's arrival means Newton will leave
Potentially the biggest reason the Panthers may move on from Newton is something completely separate from their head coaching hire: They're picking seventh overall in April's draft. They could be in a position to nab Justin Herbert or even a falling Tua Tagovailoa, and that's before considering their potential to trade down or use a second-round selection on a quarterback.
Perhaps the more relevant piece, as it comes to Rhule, is that he has some of the league's best job security with a freshly minted seven-year deal worth up to $70 million. Rhule can afford to take one or two losing seasons with a rookie quarterback or stopgap veteran if he deems Newton not part of the team's future.
With a brand new head coach, offensive coordinator, and assistant GM, the decision-makers may want a quarterback of their own choosing to build around. Only time will tell if Rhule and Brady's ideal offense will involve Newton.
Owner David Tepper has repeatedly said that he wants to build "sustained success," which means that Rhule does not have to go with the safest option. Perhaps he will put that $19.1 million in cap space they could free up to another use with hand-picked players he could tailor his offense around.
Newton is likely to stay in Carolina because, simply put, he's their best option.
Kyle Allen looked like a capable quarterback through four games — 65.6 percent passing, 7.4 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and no interceptions — but the clock struck midnight, and he turned into a pumpkin the rest of the way. He's probably not as bad as his 60.7 percent passing and 6.6 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns and 16 picks through his final nine games would indicate, but it's hard to see him becoming more than Matt Moore.
Rookie third-round pick Will Grier looked overmatched, as well, going 28-of-52 as a passer with four interceptions in his game and a half of action before suffering a foot injury. It's too soon to shut the door on his long-term potential, but he's clearly not the answer for 2020.
If Tepper is serious about wanting to win next season, and that's quite possible in a declining division that's only going to happen if they have a healthy and effective Newton on roster. There are options in free agency — Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, and even Tom Brady — but none are quite as good of fits. The Panthers have the skill position players to get the most out of Newton, too, with Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, and the potential return of Greg Olsen.
Consider Newton likely to play out the 2020 season in Carolina, where his future with the team will ultimately come down to how well he meshes with Rhule and Brady in their first season together.