While reiterating Cam Newton is the Panthers’ franchise quarterback, general manager Dave Gettleman said the team will use the fifth-year club option to keep Newton under contract through at least 2015.
Newton, the first No. 1 pick signed under the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement in 2011, agreed to a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $22 million.
Under the CBA, teams control the fifth year for first-round picks at a controlled price. For the top-10 picks, the fifth-year salary is the average of the top-10 players at their position.
If the Panthers pick up the option, Newton would make $14.7 million in 2015, guaranteed only in the case of injury.
Teams have until May 3 to exercise the fifth-year option.
“We’re in conversations on that now,” Gettleman said Tuesday at the annual league meetings at the Ritz-Carlton.
Asked if he expected to use the option on Newton, Gettleman said: “The short answer is yes. That’s a fair statement.”
Newton, 24, has been a relative bargain his first three seasons. His rookie contract included less than half of the $50 million in guaranteed money St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford received as the No. 1 overall pick in 2010.
Newton, a two-time Pro Bowler, posted a career-best quarterback rating of 88.8 and engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks last season, leading the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“I’ve come out and said he’s our franchise guy. So in due course of time things will happen,” Gettleman said. “We want him here, plain and simple.”
Newton is recovering from surgery last week to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. He will be out for four months, but Gettleman is confident Newton will be ready for training camp in July.
“There’s no issues,” Gettleman said. “The surgery went well.”
Gettleman indicated the roster moves the Panthers are making – and those they’re not making – are with future salary caps in mind.
In addition to locking up Newton with a long-term deal, the Panthers also have to create space to keep middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
“The bottom line is, when we draft and the coaches develop the player and he’s a four- or five-year guy, we don’t want to look at each other and say, ‘I can’t believe we can’t sign this guy,’ ” Gettleman said. “It’s about Cam, it’s about Luke, it’s about the two young defensive tackles if they keep developing. It’s about any of them.”
The Panthers have taken a public beating during the first two weeks of free agency, during which they cut or lost their top four wide receivers from last season and saw two starters in the secondary bolt for other teams.
But Gettleman defended the approach of signing second-tier free agents (receivers Tiquan Underwood and Jerricho Cotchery; defensive backs Roman Harper and Antoine Cason) at lower prices.
“Our plan is to put us in a position so I won’t stand up at a press conference and say, ‘We are in cap jail,’ ” Gettleman said. Coach “Ron (Rivera) isn’t going to be in a position where he put four years into a guy and now he’s going to lose him. That’s what we are trying to get to, and we will.”
The Panthers are about $5 million under the $133 million cap, and they could get cap relief by signing defensive end Greg Hardy to a long-term extension. Gettleman declined to comment on the negotiations with Hardy, who signed his franchise tender for a guaranteed $13.1 million this season.
But Gettleman addressed several other key personnel topics.
• He was noncommittal about the future of free safety Charles Godfrey, who has a $7.1 million cap figure and is coming off Achilles surgery.
“He’s part of the evaluation,” Gettleman said. “He’s got to get healthy first.”
• Gettleman sounded bullish on fourth-year player Byron Bell’s chances to shift from right to left tackle and fill the void left by Jordan Gross’ retirement.
“Byron is a naturally left-handed kid. He played left tackle his whole college career. He’s taken snaps there in practice and in preseason games,” Gettleman said. “I think the mistake we make is we all have preconceived notions about what a guy can and can’t do. I have seen Byron over there. In my mind, he is not a fish out of water.”
• Gettleman said the Panthers would evaluate the free-agent market. But he conceded it was helpful two of the team’s areas of need – receiver and offensive tackle – are positions considered among the deepest in the May 8-10 draft.
“It’s obviously a plus,” he said. “From the outside looking in, we don’t seem to be deep there. But I keep making the statement – in 2011 when I was with the Giants and we came out of training camp, no one expected Victor Cruz to do what he did. Nobody.”
Gettleman was asked who the Cruz was on the Panthers’ roster, which last season included a pair of unheralded, young wideouts in Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.
“I don’t know,” Gettleman said. “It’s going to be fun to figure it out.”