The evaluation begins with Newton.
The former No. 1 overall pick will be entering the final season of his rookie contract in 2015. Contract negotiations were halted prior to the start of the regular season, and they're not expected to resume until the offseason, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
As the Panthers struggle though a 3-8-1 campaign, Newton's status as a franchise-caliber quarterback can be brought into question. The team may actually be better served waiting a year before finally deciding whether to sign Newton to the level of contract he's expected to demand.
Cap hits from this year's top-10 highest-paid quarterbacks range from $20.4 million to $16.66 million.
It's OK to express caution when making a franchise-changing decision, particularly when the aforementioned quarterback hasn't reached the level of expectations placed upon him.
Newton set a new team record Sunday. Unfortunately, that record was consecutive games with an interception. The fourth-year signal-caller has thrown an interception in eight straight games.
His overall play has dropped off dramatically during the second half of the season, as Black & Blue Review noted:
Arguments can and have already been made regarding Newton's rash of injuries and lack of a supporting cast.
But it's been downhill ever since.
Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of a continually shifting offensive line and a lack of talent at wide receiver, sans star rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin.
The difficult situation caused Bleacher Report NFL associate editor Ian Kenyon to invoke a pretty drastic comparison:
No one can deny the current state of the Panthers offense. However, it doesn't absolve Newton from his poor play.
Of the six interceptions thrown in the past three games, Newton was only moved off his spot once due to pressure. Otherwise, the interceptions were due to awful ball placement, forced throws or improper technique.
Below is an example of Newton's poor footwork that helped lead to an interception during Week 11 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Prior to the snap, Newton recognized Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael creeping toward the line of scrimmage with an intention to blitz.
Once the ball was snapped, the Panthers' rookie left guard, Andrew Norwell, correctly peeled off his initial block to pick up the blitzing safety.
Despite a clear throwing window and Norwell's block, Newton inexplicably didn't step into his throw. Instead, he was flatfooted, and the intended pass was behind his receiver, which allowed Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant to undercut the throw and intercept the pass.
This level on inattentiveness to proper technique is unacceptable from any quarterback.
What makes Peyton Manning and Tom Brady truly special is consistency with their mechanics and a constant attention to details. Neither is close to being as physically talented as Newton. But Newton doesn't come close to their drive in improving the little things to be successful at the game's most important position.
All season, Newton's ability to throw from the pocket has proved to be erratic. It's a major concern for a dual-threat quarterback. If Newton can't consistently complete throws from the pocket, then the Panthers will continue to struggle as a franchise.
For this reason alone, Panthers brass should be tentative when it's time to officially offer a new mega-contract to a player whose overall play hasn't warranted it.
|Cam Newton's stats: 2013 v. 2014|
|Year||Completion %||Passing Yards||Touchdowns||Turnovers||Rushing Yards|
Newton needs to show sustained improvement over a longer period of time before he can officially be considered a franchise quarterback. The Auburn product took a step forward as a passer earlier in the season, but he's since regressed.
By not extending his contract this offseason, the Panthers will be granted another year of evaluation.
There are also tertiary benefits for the organization to wait before offering Newton any type of extension.
Over the Cap estimates the Panthers will possess more than $12 million in salary-cap space entering the 2015 offseason.
NFL contracts can be manipulated in numerous ways. Next season Newton owns a $14.66 million cap hit, according to Spotrac. That number could fluctuate depending on an agreement.
But where the team currently stands—or is projected to stand—there is enough room to improve multiple positions that are severely lacking this season.
Since defensive end Greg Hardy will almost certainly not return after spending the bulk of the season on the commissioner's exempt list, none of the Panthers' upcoming free agents will be labeled high-priority re-signings.
The Panthers will likely consider re-signing veterans such as left tackle Byron Bell, Dwan Edwards, Colin Cole and Antoine Cason, but none of them has played particularly well this season. Their losses certainly wouldn't be a major hindrance to Carolina's future endeavors.
The organization can create even more flexibility under the cap if it considers releasing or renegotiating the contracts of safety Roman Harper, fullback Mike Tolbert and even oft-injured linebacker Thomas Davis.
“No matter what type of caliber team that we are, the answers are in that locker room,” Newton told the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person. “What are you going to do, cut this person, take that person away, add this person, add that person? The answers are in that locker room.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman won't be forced to make a move with Newton because he needs to get the team under the cap. There is more than enough wiggle room to allow the quarterback time to mature and still address issues at left tackle, in the secondary and with the team's pass rush.
That's assuming Gettleman is retained as the organization's general manager after this season. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson could clean house and start fresh after this year's spoiled season.
If that were to occur, there is even more reason to hold off on negotiations with Newton. A new head coach and general manager would have to find out if Newton could be Carolina's quarterback as the team heads in another direction.
Tabling the negotiation could actually prove beneficial for Newton too.
While players want to be paid in accordance to their perceived worth, the Panthers have done very little to surround Newton with the talent capable of winning over the long haul.
With both sides considering all their options, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller insisted Newton should use the extra time to evaluate the moves the team makes next offseason:
Both parties can benefit by slow-playing this entire process.
If the Panthers decide they do want to invest heavily in Newton after the 2015 campaign, the franchise tag is always an option as well.
With four games remaining, Newton has something to prove. The quarterback's future in Carolina isn't guaranteed.
Panthers brass must consider all of its options before committing to the team's current quarterback. This season hasn't given it much of a reason to continue negotiations once the campaign is complete. Newton is a rare physical specimen, though. And this is the fine line the organization must walk as it contemplates the most important decision any team can make.
Newton is talented enough, but is he good enough to eventually take the Panthers to another level? He hasn't shown the ability to do so yet. And that's the concern.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.