Panthers' need to draft QB goes beyond Cam Newton's shoulder

Russell Wilson just became the highest-paid player in the NFL, and Cam Newton would have to have another MVP-caliber season to get into his salary neighborhood. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton understands that the Carolina Panthers likely will draft a quarterback for the first time since he was the first overall pick in 2011 as short-term insurance in case there is a setback from his second shoulder surgery in three offseasons.

There also are long-term implications, as only this season and next are left on Newton’s contract as he approaches age 30 next month.

Newton admitted as much in a recent YouTube video.

"I’m coming off surgery on my shoulder and there’s a lot of people that are kind of counting me out," Newton said. "It’s also new talent that’s coming in that want my spot, for whatever it’s worth. ... When I’m focused, I’m dangerous."

It would be more dangerous for the Panthers to ignore the quarterbacks in this week's draft. Russell Wilson’s new four-year, $140 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks with a $65 million signing bonus was a reminder that re-signing the franchise quarterback is going to be costly.

It was also a reminder that it’s good to have a capable replacement in the fold not only as insurance in case a deal can’t be reached but as leverage to keep the price from skyrocketing.

Wilson’s deal set the standard for quarterbacks with a yearly $35 million average. At 30, he has never missed a game, led the Seahawks to two Super Bowls (and one title) and has reached the playoffs in all but one season since 2012. That made his extension a no-brainer.

It’s not as cut and dried for the Panthers, who could be in the market for a quarterback on the second day of the draft, perhaps as high as the second round. The stock of Charlotte native and former West Virginia quarterback Will Grier seems to be rising since his pro-day workout.

Newton has missed five games since 2014 because of injuries. He’s had surgery on an ankle and his throwing shoulder. He has been hit more than any other quarterback since 2011, so there is wear and tear.

He has had a winning record only three times in eight seasons. Until Norv Turner was hired as the offensive coordinator last offseason, Newton had a career 58.5 career completion percentage.

Yes, Newton was the 2015 MVP and appeared in that season's Super Bowl. That does give him some leverage. Yet he’s still not regarded on the same level as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger or even Wilson.

A range of $32 million to $33 million per year seems reasonable, according to several NFL agents, considering Washington’s Kirk Cousins is getting $28 million a year and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo $27.5 million.

Regardless, that will have an impact on how the Panthers build the rest of the roster, which makes this year’s draft all the more important. Getting an edge rusher or left tackle in the first round -- typically the two highest-paid positions on the roster behind quarterback -- would lock in a manageable salary for five years.

It would give general manager Marty Hurney the luxury to extend Newton's contract without strapping himself financially at other positions.

Taking a potential starting quarterback in this year’s draft also would give Hurney bargaining power. After the top four quarterbacks, Grier seems to be the most NFL-ready, and he’s a player the Panthers have spent considerable time evaluating during the pre-draft process.

Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson also have drawn interest from Carolina.

Coach Ron Rivera said the organization hasn’t devoted more time to evaluating quarterbacks in this draft than in previous years. But with everything going on around Newton, there appears to be a more serious mindset to draft a quarterback, even though Rivera has said he’s comfortable with current backups Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke.

“If you look at the way things did go for Taylor and Kyle, you would feel pretty comfortable that they can go in and run our system to be efficient for us," Rivera said at a pre-draft news conference.

But the Panthers need more than efficiency long term. Allen and Heinicke, both undrafted, still are unproven.

That Newton’s rehab appears to be going well is a positive. His range of motion was compromised last season, and the team shut him down the final two games. That range of motion started coming back after arthroscopic surgery to clean up scar tissue.

“He’s progressing very well," Rivera said. “There is no timetable [for him to throw], and we’re not going to push. We’re going to make sure when he’s ready to roll, he’s exactly where he needs to be."

The immediate goal is to have Newton ready for at least limited throwing at the start of training camp in late July. The ultimate goal is to have him ready for the Sept. 8 opener against the Los Angeles Rams.

Newton is doing all he can. He has a personal trainer at his disposal to work on his shoulder and overall fitness. He has begun a vegan diet to get his weight down to 235 pounds after playing most of last season around 245.

The sky’s the limit for Newton financially if the 2019 season is anywhere close to his MVP season. But the “if" makes it essential the Panthers draft a quarterback.

“I wouldn’t say you need somebody ready to push him," Rivera said. “You just need somebody ready to play. You just never know what the situation or circumstances are going to be like."