What's on the Line for Cam Newton Against the Seahawks?
Cam Newton will be playing the biggest game of his NFL career on Saturday. For the quarterback and the Carolina Panthers, though, there could be more on the line than a typical playoff game this weekend.
Throughout his four seasons as quarterback of the Panthers, Newton has been the recipient of criticism for everything from his play on the field to his demeanor off of it, some of it deserved, most of it not. Newton set records for rookie quarterbacks during his first year in the league, though many of his raw statistics were compiled while the Panthers were trailing in games. Yardage-wise, Newton hasn’t reached the peak of his rookie season, but by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Newton’s best season was his second.
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His numbers took a hit in his third season, as the Panthers had their best as a team, on the heels of the third-best defense by Adjusted NEP. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that, due to a mix of injuries and the worst sets of offensive linemen and wide receivers he’s played with, Newton put up the lowest NEP of his career in 2014.
What’s On The Line?
Cam is on the last guaranteed year of his rookie contract, and the Panthers have already decided to pick up Newton’s fifth-year option for 2015. That option is slated to pay Newton in excess of $14 million, more than a 100 percent raise from his 2014 salary. The option is also only guaranteed for injury, which leaves some flexibility if the Panthers would want to start talks for an extension or, more unlikely, move on completely.
Either way, the Panthers will have to figure out what to do with their quarterback beyond 2015, and they'll need to do it soon. There are two other young quarterbacks playing this weekend, but Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are already in line for a sizable new contract regardless of their play. The Panthers will likely try to start contract negotiations with Newton this offseason to get a deal done before he becomes a free agent heading into 2016. Especially after the relatively poor season Newton had in 2014, there’s a benefit for him to wait before signing an extension. The better he plays in the playoffs and even next season, the higher Newton’s asking price could become. With his first playoff win now under his belt, regardless of how messy it may have been, Newton could be in line for a playoff premium on his next deal with a surprise win against the Seahawks.
Show Me the Money
The best recent example of the playoff premium came with Joe Flacco after 2012. Flacco had been a league-average quarterback heading into the 2012 season, the last on his rookie contract. However, up to that point, he had made the playoffs in every season since entering the league in 2008. For those who put stock in quarterback wins, that put Flacco in a more positive light. He then rode an 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio throughout the playoffs to a Super Bowl win and a new contract that compensated him as if his playoff performance was the norm and sustainable. It wasn’t, and Flacco’s deal became a lesson in rewarding players based on short samples.
Baltimore gave Flacco a six-year, $120.6 million contract with $29 million guaranteed. The deal is unlikely to even see 2017 at its current construction, as it will leave Flacco with a cap hit of $31 million with just $15 million of dead money left on the deal.
A comparison for any future Newton deal and Flacco’s contract isn’t exactly apples to apples. Flacco was drafted under the old CBA, which allowed his rookie contract to be for five years and more money than Newton’s first contract. Through four seasons, Newton has already totaled more Passing NEP than Flacco had through his five seasons, when his rookie deal expired. Even though Newton has rated as a better quarterback, it’s doubtful we see a team dish out a contract like that one again in the near future, even after Flacco had a career year in 2014.
This past offseason, a new wave of contracts were handed out to second-tier quarterbacks. While there were still the high raw numbers for the deals, the contracts signed by Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith were incentive-laden and laced with built-in outs for the team. Newton has stated he would be opposed to this type of deal, but there may be little Newton can control if this is the way the market is heading.
Our similarity scores rate Newton’s 2014 season as a 93.15 percent match -- analytically -- to Alex Smith’s 2013 in Kansas City. Following that season, Smith signed his four-year, $68 million contract with the Chiefs. Due to the struggles earlier in his career, Smith’s 2013 was one of his better seasons by NEP while Newton’s 2014 was his worst.
Kaepernick could be an interesting comp for Newton though too. His deal with San Francisco is listed as a six-year, $114 million contract, though most of that money will never be seen, as is important to note for many of these large scale quarterback contracts. There are $2 million de-escalators in the contract each season, which only stays in the base salary if Kaepernick is named first- or second-team All-Pro or wins the NFC Championship Game while playing at least 80 percent of the regular season snaps and 80 percent of the playoff snaps. Each season’s salary also doesn't become guaranteed until April 1 of that year, which would allow San Francisco to move on instantly if needed.
The Panthers are unlikely to place that many provisions into Newton’s new contract, and Newton seems even more unlikely to accept a deal of that nature. The overall terms of the deal may be where the baseline for the Carolina quarterback’s next contract lies. Even while Newton has proved he can outplay the four quarterbacks who received new deals last season, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some type of incentive structure built into any new contract to receive maximum value.
Newton’s play against Seattle will not be the only factor in determining his next contract, but history shows an impressive performance can go a long way in adding in a few million to the deal.