Newton, 30, has one year left on his contract at a $21.1 million salary cap hit. The Panthers would only be docked $2 million as a dead cap hit if they trade Newton this offseason, which gives them the chance to deal him with essentially no penalty.
Newton has not played since Week 2, when a Lisfranc injury in his left foot suffered in the third week of preseason forced him to the sidelines. Newton saw two specialists last week, according to the Panthers, and both agreed Newton would require “significant time” to fully recover. The injury took place after he had spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery that already had some questioning his long-term health status.
In Newton’s place, the Panthers have surged into playoff contention with second-year pro Kyle Allen at quarterback. The Panthers signed Allen as an undrafted free agent, but he does not come with the typical pedigree of an undrafted player. Coming out of high school, recruiting services ranked Allen as the best pocket passer quarterback in the country.
Allen has led the Panthers to a 5-1 record in his six starts, mostly by leaning on the brilliance of running back Christian McCaffrey. Allen has completed 60.7 percent of his passes while throwing for nine touchdowns and four interceptions — three of them coming in a blowout loss to San Francisco. His 87.8 quarterback rating ranks 25th, between Kyler Murray and Jared Goff. His numbers are pedestrian, but he has led the Panthers to wins.
Allen’s performance in the season’s second half may determine how the Panthers view him. He has emerged, at the very least, as a candidate to become Carolina’s future at the position. If the Panthers commit to him, it would provide them the benefit of paying their quarterback a pittance. Allen will be an exclusive rights free agent after this year, which means the Panthers can sign him back for $585,000 for the 2020 season and control his contractual rights through 2022.
If the Panthers choose Allen, Newton would become high-end, high-profile trade fodder. Despite his health issues, Newton would surely have suitors. He is four years removed from being the MVP and reaching the Super Bowl, and before the shoulder problems arose last year he was having an elite season. Acquiring him would be risky, but quarterbacks of his caliber rarely come available.
Newton would be a fit on a team with a roster built to contend but bereft of consistent quarterback play. The Chicago Bears leap immediately to mind — they have poured massive resources into building a championship defense, but Mitchell Trubisky has regressed and dragged them out of playoff contention. Newton would be an opportunity to salvage their window.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans declined to extend the contracts of fifth-year quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Neither is likely to be in position to select a top quarterback in April’s draft. Both would be a logical fit for Newton. The Denver Broncos have been seeking a quarterback since Peyton Manning retired, and they have a defense talented enough to make bringing in Newton a worthwhile idea.
For now, Newton’s future is highly speculative. He could return to Carolina, regardless of Allen’s performance. It is difficult to break a bond between player and franchise as strong as the one Newton and Carolina share. But in an offseason likely to be chocked with quarterback movement, Newton could be the most fascinating quarterback on the move. For years, he has been one of the league’s best, most thrilling players. His season is over, and where he plays next is an open question.