Carolina Panthers

Panthers position analysis: At QB, Cam Newton’s surgery requires a plan, but what?

The Carolina Panthers’ quarterback situation had a completely different feel Wednesday than it did Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Panthers had a franchise quarterback who might need surgery, at least one young quarterback who could be their backup of the future and an idling sense of urgency to add a free agent passer. Thursday, things got a little more clear.

Carolina announced Cam Newton underwent arthroscopic surgery Thursday on his surgically repaired right shoulder — the same shoulder that ended his 2018 season prematurely.

Which means the Panthers now have a franchise quarterback they hope is on his way back to full health - health that Carolina hopes will either keep them from having to either thrust a young backup into a starting role, or from spending money in free agency for a backup in an offseason where they need every extra penny.

But before we speculate on the future, let’s review the past five months.

Newton thrived under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who installed a check-down, yards-after-catch based offense to preserve that aforementioned shoulder. Gone were the vertical shots downfield in favor of routes that allowed Newton to get the ball out of his hands faster — and through eight games it worked. The 2015 NFL MVP completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,893 yards and 15 touchdowns against three interceptions, which put him on pace for arguably the best season of his eight-year career and made the Panthers a contender in the NFC after a 6-2 start.

But Newton adopted a so-called “new normal” practice routine in Week 8, in which he was on a limited “pitch count” during the team’s weekly practices. Slowly, it became clear why the limitations were necessary.

As he labored through an injury he described as “frustrating,” one that got neither better nor worse, Newton passed for nine touchdowns and threw nine interceptions over his final six games of the season — all losses.

His quarterback rating dropped from 100.8 to 85.9 and the Panthers eventually shut him down after a Week 15 loss to New Orleans.

In his stead, Taylor Heinicke threw for 274 yards and a touchdown against three interceptions against Atlanta in Week 16 but hyperextended his elbow during the game and was placed on injured reserve.

In the season finale at New Orleans, undrafted rookie Kyle Allen passed for two scores and ran for another, passing for 228 yards and ending the team’s seven-game losing streak in the process. But he was out before game’s end with a shoulder injury.

Allen’s performance produced “a little bit” of confidence within the organization, owner David Tepper said, but not enough to definitively crown him the team’s backup of the future. And while Newton’s health was still in question when Tepper met with select media members on Jan. 15, he made it clear the Panthers need a quality backup.

“People get injured in football and what we have to do is keep our options open just in case,” Tepper said. “Cam Newton’s the guy we’re going to be depending on. He’s a talent. But it would be foolish of anybody to say that you’re not having an awareness of what could be and potential things that could happen through the year.”

A league source told the Observer last week Newton’s surgery, which was a cleanup rather than a repair, could have him back by training camp. But it emphasizes the Panthers’ need.

What are the options? In free agency, the Panthers would have to find a quarterback within their price range who could step in if Newton’s health fails.

Through the draft, it’s unlikely they spend a high pick on a quarterback in a relatively weak class, but it’s possible they take a chance on a passer in the mid-to-late rounds who can develop behind Newton.

Here’s how it shapes up:

The free agents

Ryan Fitzpatrick trails only Nick Foles when it comes to NFL backup quarterbacks who can start games — and win — in a pinch. Bruce Arians appears to be all-in on Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay and Fitzpatrick could possibly be lured to NFC South rival Carolina with a far more balanced offense and arguably a better chance to succeed..

Colin Kaepernick still wants to play football but after two seasons away from the game, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll need some time to re-adjust. Carolina could sign him in the preseason, let him show whether he can still play and make a decision on him before the regular season begins.

Tyrod Taylor reasonably lost the starting job in Cleveland to Baker Mayfield, but he’s a reliable starter when given the opportunity. He threw 51 touchdowns against 16 interceptions in three seasons as Buffalo’s full-time starter, rushing for 1,575 yards and 14 scores. Get the ball to McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, don’t turn the ball over and keep defenses honest — Taylor can do all three.

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor warms up before an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane) Ron Schwane AP

The rookies

Gardner Minshew put up video game numbers at Washington State and turned in a decent week of practice at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. But he was abysmal in his limited action during the game, which doesn’t effect a lot of confidence in his ability to transition to a pro-style offense.

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Former Duke quarterback and Charlotte native Daniel Jones looks the part but hasn’t solidified himself as a first-round draft pick. Butch Dill AP

Daniel Jones is a Charlotte product who didn’t necessarily help himself during Senior Bowl practices but was named the MVP of the game after passing for one touchdown and running for another. He has good size (6-5, 220) and played for quarterback guru David Cutcliffe at Duke. He’ll likely have to impress the Panthers’ coaching staff over the next few months but he’s an option in a mediocre quarterback class.

Tyree Jackson, like Newton, is a physical aberration at quarterback at 6-foot-7, 245 pounds. Unlike Newton, Jackson is a far less polished passer coming out of college — although he has potential, with arm strength to burn and the ability to extend plays out of the pocket. The Buffalo product has plenty of mechanical issues to iron out, but if the Panthers think he’s capable of doing that, he is a mid-round option.



Things to keep in mind

Tepper has made it clear that the Panthers want to keep long-term success of the team in mind, and that includes their franchise quarterback’s health. They expect him to be practicing fully by training camp, but when presented with hypotheticals earlier this month, Tepper indicated that they will do whatever it takes to get Newton healthy long-term.

Carolina hasn’t drafted a quarterback since selecting Newton first overall in 2011, although that could change this off-season. However, unless it becomes clear there’s a rookie who, in the long run, gives the Panthers a better chance to win than Allen, Heinicke or any member of what projects to be a solid free agent corps, safe money bets against them spending more than an mid-to-late pick on a quarterback.

One of the biggest things the Panthers want to get back with a healthy Newton is the deep ball. Although vertical passing wasn’t the focal point of their offense, the Panthers need opponents to acknowledge its existence — which is something opposing secondaries vocally refused to do last season.

Newton’s surgery is the first step toward normalcy this offseason — the surgery was minor and shouldn’t take too long to recover, meaning the Panthers likely won’t do anything dramatic. So be patient, Carolina fans. What was shaping up to be a volatile offseason might just have some stability after all.

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Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.
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