The Carolina Panthers want to make sure their investment in quarterback Cam Newton is protected, and that means Newton will have to protect himself.
Newton and the Panthers agreed Tuesday to a five-year contract extension worth $103.8 million, making Newton the highest-paid player in the franchise’s 21-year history.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback is a rare blend of size, speed, arm strength and talent, but he often has put himself in harm’s way with his play. Newton leads all quarterbacks since 2011 in rushing yards, and with those runs often come big hits.
Now that Newton accounts for a larger percentage of the salary cap, might he have to think twice before taking off to run?
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Maybe, maybe not.
“Nothing about this contract changes my approach to this game,” Newton said Tuesday night after signing his extension. “I’m still going to be a person who is willing to win at all costs.
“But I have to understand what I mean to this team. We always have talks – coach (Ron) Rivera and I, as well as Mr. (Dave) Gettleman – about playing smart and being smart when I’m on the field. And I feel like I’ve done a great job to this point and will be more mindful of the hits that I take when running, and make this process go smoothly.”
On one hand, Newton wants to remain the dynamic dual-threat quarterback he’s always been. That is what won him a Heisman Trophy and national championship in college, what earned him the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and what has helped Carolina get to the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
But there’s danger in it for Newton. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Newton has been hit 578 times while running or throwing since 2011, 270 times more than the next-closest quarterback.
Newton also dealt with more injuries last year than at any other time in his playing career. First it was the offseason ankle surgery to tighten ligaments, limiting him during the summer and into training camp.
Just as he was rehabbing the ankle, Newton suffered cracked ribs in an exhibition against New England when linebacker Jamie Collins’ knee hit Newton’s back on an awkward Newton slide.
Newton missed the season-opener against Tampa Bay because of the injury, then wore a protective flak jacket for the rest of the season.
In December, Newton was involved in a car accident that left him with fractures in his lower back. He missed the second Tampa Bay game as a result.
The Panthers eased Newton into the NFL in 2011 by implementing the zone-read offense. That highlighted Newton’s rushing ability and kept defenses guessing as to which player would carry the ball.
But over time, the Panthers have gone away from that offense as they try to change Newton into more of a pocket passer. He still has mechanical issues – overthrowing receivers being the biggest – and his completion percentage last season ranked 29th of all quarterbacks.
Still, Carolina wants Newton to be himself on the field. That means calling the occasional quarterback run or allowing him to improvise and make a play.
“He’s going to play the way he does, and that’s what you expect,” Rivera said. “In the back of your mind, it’s not about the money. Somebody asked me, do you think the money will change him? I said no, he already had money. He had the rookie contract and all the endorsements. It ain’t gonna change him.
“But knock on wood with something like that.”
Cam on the run
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s year-by-year NFL rushing statistics: