The ups and downs that Newton endured are somewhat typical of a young player in his first two seasons of professional football. But as time moves forward, Newton is going to have to stop relying on the young quarterback crutch and really develop into the leader he’s expected to become as the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft.
Unfortunately, with the Panthers in the midst of a potential salary cap nightmare, Newton may never get all the pieces in place to truly become great.
While many teams have been able to compete and thrive in the free-agent marketplace over the last few weeks the Panthers have been hamstrung with a very tight budget. Even after restructuring a number of contracts to free up cap space, instead of being able to talk to marquee free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha the Panthers have been relegated to bringing back their own players like Captain Munnerlyn and Dwan Edwards and signing less-sought-after players like Ted Ginn Jr.
Don’t rush to blame new general manager Dave Gettleman; he’s only playing the hand that was dealt to him by former decision maker Marty Hurney, who was fired during the season last year.
Hurney made the now-glaringly unfortunate decision of tying up $89.211 million on three running backs. Between DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, the Panthers will spend $13.24 million this year. Williams’ contract is the biggest culprit. He’s scheduled to count $8.2 million against the cap, according to Spotrac.
But the financial turmoil of the running back corps is only part of the problem.
Looking ahead into 2014, linebacker Jon Beason’s contract is going to hurt the Panthers. He’s scheduled to make $10.75 million in 2014. That’s a large chuck of change for a linebacker, especially one who hasn’t been able to stay on the field because of injury.
Other big contracts in 2014 include defensive end Charles Johnson ($15 million), center Ryan Kalil ($10.4 million), Williams ($9.2 million), safety Charles Godfrey ($7.1 million), offensive tackle Jordan Gross ($5.9 million) and linebacker Thomas Davis ($5.81 million).
Some of these contracts are huge because of the players’ worth, but others are the result of creative NFL financing. Shifting money around like the Panthers have had to do is eventually going to come back to haunt them.
One of the easy ways to get rid of a huge portion of accounts payable is to release a player outright, like Carolina did with cornerback Chris Gamble in early March. That avenue of relief leaves a few problems, however.
The biggest issue of cutting veterans because of high salaries is that it forces a team to get rid of a key on-field component. Had it not been for money, Gamble would have been welcomed back with open arms as Carolina’s best cornerback. How much is it going to hurt if the Panthers to have to say goodbye to stars like Johnson and Kalil next season?
Another problem of showing a veteran player the door in lieu of keeping him under contract is that a team can usually never completely wash its hands of the player financially.
Cutting a guy like Beason could save the Panthers a lot of money, but the team will still have to foot some of the bill. Beason still will have $31.5 million left on his current contract after the 2013 season. Carolina will have to pull some of that forward if they cut him as dead money that counts against the salary cap, likely millions.
Being under the thumb of a tight purse string is going to ensure that Carolina cannot bring in top-notch talent with which to surround Newton. And because the Panthers are going to have to continually shave off veteran players because of the salary cap and sign younger, unproven talent, the skill level of the depth chart as a whole is going to plummet.
This is a terrible recipe for a young quarterback that has the talent to lead his team very deep into the playoffs. Without some elite talent surrounding him, Newton is never going to realize his full potential. Use as an example the Panthers’ need to find a No. 2 receiver opposite of Steve Smith.
Finding Newton another weapon in the passing game has been a priority for both Newton’s two seasons. But the Panthers have been unable to find a good enough option with the limited funds the team has. And while building through the draft can be lucrative (especially if the Panthers continue their first-round success stories by grabbing players like Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly), without some veteran stars to shine on Sunday, Carolina might become a destination for these young draft picks to play out their rookie contracts and move on to teams that can either promise a playoff run or big-time money, possibly both.
The sad truth is that restructuring contracts is only going to get Carolina part of the way to its goal. Gettleman will have to make more tough decisions like releasing Gamble. And in the wake of those decisions the Panthers may have some choppy seas ahead while the team adjusts.
Newton won’t be able to truly succeed in this future the Panthers have before them, at least not any time soon. And for an ultra-competitive guy like Newton who absolutely abhors losing, how long do you think he’ll put up with the deck being stacked against him because of the franchise’s terrible financial decisions of the past?
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.