When free agency opened, the Carolina Panthers allowed, and even insisted, that quarterback Cam Newton begin pursuing trade offers.
Now, here we are in a QB market that seems all but inert following the initial flurry of activity. Newton has been released and enters the free-agent pool.
Newton's 2020 cap figure in the final year on a six-year deal was $21.1 million. That's a large part of the reason why the Panthers were able to cut him. This late into the deal, Carolina will only swallow $2 million in dead cap to get Newton's $21 million figure off of its books.
The contract also gives us a good understanding of what teams won't sign Newton to. Why not trade a late-round draft pick for Newton if you were comfortable playing him on that contract? The $21.1 million is a rather small-cap figure for even an average quarterback, and Newton is a significantly above-average QB when healthy. With most of the money non-guaranteed base salary, it wasn't too much of a concern that a team would sign Newton, not play him but still have to pay him: It could have cut Newton and saved the money.
The big concern with Newton and with that contract structure is the same: injury. If Newton were to end up on injured reserve during the season, he would still be given that base salary. With $18.6 million in base salary over a 17-week season, Newton's game checks are over a million dollars a pop and that's not cheap.
Accordingly, the structure of Newton's forthcoming contract will likely be heavily conditional on availability with incentives earned for being an active member of the roster and performance-based as well.
How high could that ceiling reach? I would be surprised to see it hit the $20 million figure that teams were disinterested in previously trading Newton for. He isn't likely to sign a deal longer than one or two years — if he's healthy and productive, he'll want to get back on the free-agent market as soon as he can to hit another payday.
Short-term deals for aging and veteran quarterbacks have been fairly common in recent years. Philip Rivers just signed on a one-year, $25 million contract, Drew Brees has signed back-to-back two-year, $50 million deals and maybe we could even highlight Jacoby Brissett's deal as a short-term example: two years, $30 million total.
Brissett's first-year cap hit was small — less than $10 million — but his second-year hit is right around Newton's at $21.4 million. It’s largely tied into a roster bonus, which is worth $8.75 million and was guaranteed earlier this week, and more of the money is tied into annual per-game active bonuses.
This is the sort of deal that makes sense for Newton, who will walk to his new team without a secured starting job — even if he goes into camp as the favorite — and will negotiate in uncertain health given his recovery from the Lisfranc injury that ended his 2019 season before it really got going.
With the added roadblock of limited medical access as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams will be even more hesitant to guarantee Newton much money as they won't know just how uncertain his health is until months in the future.
I'd expect Newton to sign a one-year deal that maxes out around $17 million, but I would imagine has less than $10 million guaranteed at signing. Newton should try to negotiate a no-tag clause, to again, ensure he hits free agency while he's still in his early 30s.
For Newton to get a higher average than that, he'd likely have to sign a two- or three-year deal for a team that strongly believes he'll be healthy enough to provide consistent starter ability — and thereby big-time value — on a multi-year contract.