Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton’s shoulder surgery clarifies what Panthers, Dave Gettleman must do at No. 8

LSU running back Leonard Fournette could put the Carolina Panthers back in the business of relying on a downhill running game.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette could put the Carolina Panthers back in the business of relying on a downhill running game. AP

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman filled a lot of gaps during free agency so he can take the best player available in next month’s draft.

But in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement that Cam Newton will undergo shoulder surgery next week, Gettleman needs to change his draft approach to ... best player available who can keep his $103 million quarterback from further harm.

That means Gettleman should shelve his affinity for pass rushers and defensive tackles/hog mollies and use the No. 8 pick to get Newton some protection.

That help does not necessarily have to take the form of an offensive tackle, considering there doesn’t appear to be a guy worthy of a top-10 pick in the tackle group.

The Panthers had Alabama tackle Cam Robinson in for a visit on Monday, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. And given the uncertainty that continues to cloud Michael Oher’s status, they should keep kicking the tires on tackles Such as Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk and Utah’s Garett Bolles.

Should the Panthers pass on a tackle at No. 8, then Gettleman needs to add another playmaker on offense. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard might be the most athletic player in the draft, and Washington wide receiver John Ross definitely is the fastest.

But LSU tailback Leonard Fournette remains the best fit for a Panthers’ offense that – even before news of Newton’s pending surgery – was expected to evolve in order to better protect Newton from unnecessary pounding.

Look, football’s a physical game and injuries can happen on any play (more on Newton’s injury later). But no one has taken more hits since 2011 than Newton – and it’s not close.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula began the evolution process late last season when he started calling fewer zone-read plays for Newton. Adding a big, bruising runner such as Fournette to share carries with fellow bruiser Jonathan Stewart gives the Panthers’ a potent 1-2 punch for their power, downhill running game (which Ron Rivera has said he’d like to get back to).

Phasing out the zone read will give defenses one less thing to worry about. But an effective running game will draw safeties up near the line of scrimmage and get linebackers to bite on fakes in the play-action game.

A study in irony

Back to Newton: No one with the Panthers seems to know precisely when his injury occurred, except that an MRI after a Week 14 victory over San Diego revealed a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.

The play when it might have happened provides an interesting study in irony.

The narrative surrounding Newton last offseason involved his post-Super Bowl sulk, but also his failure to jump on a fumble late in the loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.

Late in the Panthers’ 28-16 victory over the Chargers on Dec. 11, Newton threw a pass in the end zone that was intended for Kelvin Benjamin. Cornerback Trovon Reed – an Auburn man, like Newton – intercepted the pass, fell to the ground, got up and, after a weak effort by Kelvin Benjamin, raced the length of the field for an apparent, 100-yard touchdown.

The post-game questions mostly were directed at Benjamin and his half-hearted tackle attempt (Benjamin said he knew he’d touched down Reed, which officials ruled after a replay review and nullified the TD return).

What many ignored on the play was Newton running 85 yards, taking on a block by a San Diego linebacker and making a diving tackle attempt to try to prevent Reed from scoring.

In the process, Newton landed awkwardly on his right shoulder and stayed on the ground for a few seconds, although TV replays did not show him grimacing on the field or when he returned to the bench.

With the Panthers trying to salt the game away, Newton attempted only one pass over the final two series – a third-down throw that came up short to Ted Ginn Jr. along the sideline.

It’s possible Newton injured his shoulder at some point earlier in the season, and the jarring impact when he hit the ground aggravated it.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton says he needs "a lot of rest" and that he has a "love-hate relationship" with football right now.

Why not shut him down?

What seems to matter most to Panthers fans, judging by my Twitter mentions, is what happened next: The Carolina medical staff limited Newton’s practice throws but allowed him to play out the string in three games that were essentially meaningless.

It should be noted that Newton wanted to finish the season despite playing in obvious pain and losing the giddy-up on his fastball. The Panthers had established a precedent for, in essence, protecting a player from himself when they sat Luke Kuechly the last three games after he’d been cleared from the concussion protocol.

They certainly could have done the same with Newton, over his protests.

But where was the public outrage after Colts owner Jim Irsay announced in January that quarterback Andrew Luck had undergone shoulder surgery to fix an undisclosed issue that bothered Luck for parts of two seasons?

There continues to be a damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t judgment of Newton that other quarterbacks aren’t subject to.

But that’s a whole other story. (So is talk that the Panthers should sign Colin Kaepernick, an idea with merit if the Panthers weren’t changing their offense.)

Signing Kaepernick isn’t going to expose Newton to fewer hits in 2017 and beyond.

Drafting Fournette or some other offensive protector/playmaker might.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson