Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman believes Cam Newton is the Panthers’ franchise quarterback and expressed confidence in coach Ron Rivera, but didn’t lay out any potential plans for locking them up with contract extensions.
In his first public comments since July, Gettleman said Tuesday the Panthers are still dealing with salary cap challenges and will be for the next two years. The Panthers were $16 million over the cap when Gettleman was hired last January, and now have $12 million to carry over to this year’s projected $128 million cap.
Gettleman’s first offseason with the Panthers was spent shedding salaries and signing a number of second-tier free agents, most of whom agreed to one-year deals. The team has 21 unrestricted free agents, including eight starters.
But Gettleman’s first priority this winter will be coming to terms with Newton, who’s entering the final year of his four-year, $22 million rookie deal. Newton was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft class that had its rookie deals greatly reduced under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Several prominent quarterbacks received huge contracts last offseason, including a pair of Super Bowl MVPs in Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who has played in one playoff game in five seasons, received a five-year, $76 million extension.
Stafford’s contract would seem to be a possible starting point in the negotiations from Newton’s side.
The Panthers also could choose to exercise the club option on Newton for 2015, when they would owe him the average of the 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in 2014. Teams have until May 3 to exercise the fifth-year option.
While Gettleman wouldn’t discuss any contract particulars, he left no doubt that he views Newton as the Panthers’ franchise quarterback.
“Yes, no seven-second pause,” Gettleman said. “Yes he is.”
Gettleman was referring to his response to the same question about Newton in July early in training camp. Gettleman paused that day before answering: “Yes, he is. But now it’s time to win.”
Led by a more efficient Newton, the Panthers (12-4) won the NFC South this season and made the playoffs for the first time in five years.
While Newton’s passing numbers were down – he threw for more yards than any quarterback in NFL history his first two seasons – he posted career highs in completion percentage (64.7), touchdown passes (24) and passer rating (88.8).
The knock on Newton entering the season was his lack of production in the clutch. He’d led one game-winning drive in each of his first two years.
But Newton guided four fourth-quarter comebacks in 2013, including three in November in consecutive weeks, against San Francisco, New England and Miami.
A year after leading the Panthers in rushing, Newton’s 585 rushing yards were second behind DeAngelo Williams’ 843. Newton also ran for a team-high six touchdowns.
“Do I feel Cam is our franchise quarterback? He proved it to me,” Gettleman said. “He proved it this year. He flat proved it. So now it’s a matter moving forward as a group.”
It’s unclear whether defensive end Greg Hardy will be part of that group. Hardy tied a club record with 15 sacks during the final year of his contract, and is looking for a deal commensurate with one of the league’s top pass-rushers.
He may not find it with Carolina.
Gettleman twice was asked about Hardy, and didn’t talk about him in the same terms he used in discussing Newton.
The Panthers could use the franchise tag on Hardy, projected to be around $12 million for defensive ends, or let him leave in free agency. Gettleman said that scenario happens every year around the league.
“Everybody lets players go. There isn’t a team in this league that hasn’t let a big dog walk out the door. And don’t print that I’m saying that he’s going to go,” Gettleman said. “I’m just making a statement. There isn’t anybody that hasn’t done that. It’s a whole big puzzle we’re putting together and he’s one of the pieces.”
Those pieces aren’t just players.
Rivera, 13-19 his first two seasons, also is entering the final year of his contract. Rivera’s job was thought to be in jeopardy after an 0-2 start, but he’s now one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year after the Panthers won 11 of their final 12 regular-season games.
Gettleman, sitting next to Rivera on a riser during the midday press conference, declined to say whether he’d let a coach enter the final year of his deal without an extension.
“I have ultimate faith in Ron moving forward. How’s that?” Gettleman said. “Twelve-and-four, NFC South champ, I think I’m pretty pleased.”
While there has been some public criticism of offensive coordinator Mike Shula since the Panthers’ 10-point output in Sunday’s playoff loss to San Francisco, Rivera said he expects his coaching staff to return.
But Rivera said there are areas that need work, specifically the red-zone offense and third-down defense. The Panthers failed to score touchdowns on two first-and-goal situations in the first half against the 49ers, and the defense had five penalties that resulted in first downs for San Francisco.
“We’re not satisfied. And it’s a huge mistake if we think we’re going to show up and be 12-4 again,” Rivera said. “Believe me, it’s up to me to make sure we go forward, get better and continue to grow.”
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