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The Cam Conundrum: What do the Panthers do at Quarterback?

 By Aaron Wayne White

January 11, 2020 (updated)

The Carolina Panthers have undergone a tremendous amount of change in the past couple of years, as ownership, the coaching staff, and the roster have significantly transformed. But one thing has remained constant: Cam Newton as the face of the franchise. But now, even that is subject to change, as the former MVP returns from his second straight injury-shortened season, and rumors are plentiful about his future in the Carolinas, making for a muddled quarterback situation.

Matt Rhule, coming off a remarkable collegiate coaching career, was tapped as the next Head Coach of the Carolina Panthers. Schematically, Rhule’s offense relies heavily on the RPO, which would fit Newton seamlessly. But Rhule’s feelings on keeping Newton are uncertain. Regardless of what they are, he will have influence on what the decision will be.

Cam Newton enter final year of contract in 2020 and Kyle Allen becomes a free agent. Photo: Alex Cason

If the team decides to move on from Newton, the first question would be how to do it. One option is to release him, which would free up $19 million in cap space, a particularly attractive aspect to a team which has a Christian McCaffrey contract extension looming. The other primary option is to trade him, but one would have to wonder what value they would get in return for a quarterback whose health is questionable. 

If the Panthers sever ties with Newton, the next step is to find a replacement. One thing is for sure: the replacement is not already on the team. Current backups Kyle Allen and Will Grier combined for 20 interceptions but only 17 touchdowns (All Kyle Allen’s), and went 5-9 as starters. They both displayed talent, but not enough to improve their status to starters.

Christian McCaffrey enters final year of contract in 2020. Photo: Alex Cason

One of the avenues Carolina can explore to find their next QB is free agency, with names like Tom Brady, Teddy Bridgewater, and Phillip Rivers all on the market. The last of those three names is the most intriguing for the Panthers, as Rivers has North Carolina ties having played for the NC State Wolfpack in college. Even though his veteran leadership would make him a good fit for a young offense, signing Rivers could be seen as shortsighted. However, the 38 year old is well past his prime and underperformed this season, throwing 20 interceptions and posting his worst quarterback rating since 2012.

While signing a veteran QB is a possibility, the Panthers are more likely to want a long-term solution, and would look to the draft to get that. The Panthers have the 7th pick, which puts them in an interesting dilemma: do they wait to see if Justin Herbert is available at seven, or try to make a deal (which would likely involve trading their 2021 1st round pick) and move up to draft Tua Tagovailoa? 

Tagovailoa’s history of injuries should be slightly concerning but, if he returns to the caliber of play he flashed at Alabama, the trade is worthwhile. His mobility, accuracy, and arm strength made him an absolute standout at Tuscaloosa.

Cam Newton will earn a base salary of $18,600,000 and a workout bonus of $500,000 in 2020. Photo: Alex Cason

On the other hand, Justin Herbert is a prospect who is far from polished. Every year the draft seems to feature a quarterback who has unwarranted hype from scouts and this year that honor belongs to Herbert, who has looked pedestrian in his senior season at Oregon. While he was able to put up solid numbers against mediocre competition, in the three games in which he faced a top 30 defense, he only threw two touchdowns and averaged a measly 191 yards passing. Oregon’s offensive scheme is contingent on screens and quick passes, which is masking Herbert’s inability to make good reads. While the size and raw ability is there, Herbert is a system quarterback and, behind our still-developing offensive line, his lack of pocket presence and bad decision-making would be fully exposed.

For now, this is all hypothetical. Perhaps the Panthers decide to stick by their franchise player, which produces a binary of outcomes: either Newton returns to the form that made him the most decorated player in team history, or they’ve put too much faith in their injury-plagued superstar, remaining in the status quo of the past few seasons. The direction of the franchise seemingly hinges on the decision at quarterback. Do they try to keep the same pieces that have brought success in the past and make a few additions, or opt for a complete teardown and rebuild?

Cam Newton. Photo: Alex Cason

Back in December, Matt Rhule said his ideal NFL coaching situation would have two things: a quarterback and alignment. At his introductory press conference, Rhule stated that he is “aligned” with General Manager Martin Hurney and Owner David Tepper. Now he just needs one thing: a quarterback.

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