CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - There was one player whose absence was notable from the Panthers’ locker room clean-out this week after their disappointing season came to a close.
As Cam Newton’s stall sat filled with his belongings Monday, it was a reminder that he may never be seen in that locker room again.
While he was around Carolina’s Uptown facility often before undergoing surgery, the only game in Charlotte that Newton attended since his Week 2 vs. the Buccaneers came in Week 15 against the Seahawks, when he hosted a group of patients from the Levine Children’s Hospital in his suite.
After that, he made an appearance at his sixth annual Santa Cam charity event, donating more than $130,000 to various causes before returning to his hometown of Atlanta to rehab from surgery on his left foot that took place in New York in early December.
The team goes into 2020 with Newton as the only viable starting quarterback on the roster. Kyle Allen was too inconsistent and will likely only be considered as a backup, and Will Grier, in his game-and-a-quarter of action, showed he’s far from NFL ready.
Newton, who has one year left on his deal, has stated that he wants to remain in Charlotte. The Panthers can save $19.1 million in cap space by letting the quarterback, who will likely want an extension, go. The biggest question of all will be his health.
“Cam will be back,” soon-to-be free agent DE Gerald McCoy said. “Listen, I don’t know if I’m going to be here or not, but that would be the dumbest thing they ever did — let Cam walk. There’s not a lot of Cam Newtons walking around.”
McCoy said if Newton is back next year, the Panthers will have a group to build around. Like any conversation that surrounds the nine-year veteran, the emphasis is on him being able to play consistently.
“Kyle (Allen) did very well and he did as good as we could have asked. But Cam Newton is an MVP,” McCoy said. “And when Cam was healthy last year, this team was 6-2. ... Cam gets healthy, great core, bring in a great coach, I’m sure this team is going to be back.
“The core is set. Trai (Turner), Christian (McCaffrey), Brian Burns, (Kawann Short) will be back, (Dontari) Poe is still here, Luke (Kuechly) and Shaq (Thompson), you got your receivers, if 1 (Cam) is healthy, you got a great core. Just build around that, this team is going to be just fine.”
Newton will be 31 years old when the 2020 regular season begins. There are a lot of variables that will be at play as to whether he will be back, including a new head coach, staff and a new assistant general manager, who will impact if the Panthers are on the hunt for a new franchise quarterback.
Fans have shown their support for Newton in a variety of ways, including putting billboards up in Charlotte that say “Keep Cam in Carolina” to show their desire for him to be starting for the Panthers next year.
Players pointed out that Newton’s status with the Panthers will also affect the decisions free agents make about signing with the team. Seven of 11 Panthers defensive starters will become free agents this offseason.
“(Moving on from Newton) probably affects free agents and this locker room,” soon-to-be free agent safety Tre Boston said. “This is a league driven by elite quarterbacks … that’s what it’s ran by. (Patrick) Mahomes, Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Jimmy (Garoppolo), if you don’t have a QB 1, who’s able to play great like that?”
Tight end Greg Olsen has shared that he is thinking over if he will retire this offseason and Newton’s potential return will play a role, among other factors, in that decision. Olsen is more likely to move on if the quarterback he had success with does, too.
After the way the Panthers’ offense looked during the eight-game losing streak to end the season, another variable has emerged: Would Newton want to return with the offensive line in the state that it’s in?
“The rest of (the elite quarterbacks) are playing to 40 — but they got O-lines,” Boston said. “Why does Cam get to have just average lines, get beat up? And the rest of these guys have healthy O-lines … Oh man, these guys can play until they’re 40 with ease.
“There’s no secret. If we keep that man healthy, he’s one of the best in the league … he’s one of the most-hit quarterbacks in the league, and I think Cam is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.”
The Panthers tied with the Dolphins for the most sacks allowed this season with 58. According to Pro Football Focus, no offensive lineman allowed more hurries this year than center Matt Paradis (40). For the entire line, Pro Football Reference has the Panthers with the most hurries in the league.
Since he was drafted in 2011, Newton is the sixth-most sacked player in the NFL (291 or a rate of 2.3 sacks per game).
“You always have to protect your quarterback,” Boston said. “If they asked me about drafting, every year I’d say, ‘Protect your quarterback.’ And get your D-line. That’s where you get stacked … to keep it fresh, O-line and D-line is where you win ballgames. Stop the run. Run the ball.”
The offensive line will be the most important position Carolina addresses this offseason.