Cam Newton's New Deal Is Really Not as Bad as You Think

Cam Newton has been an above average starting NFL quarterback, and that should be worth his new contract.

In the early days of OTAs, Cam Newton looked at the current state of his offensive line, called his agent and asked him to get a long-term deal done as quickly as possible. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman answered the call, said ok and profusely apologized while looking at the same line.

We can probably guarantee that’s not how the contract negotiations between Newton and the Panthers played out, but it’s more fun to think it did.

On Tuesday afternoon, Carolina agreed to a five-year extension with its quarterback. The deal has a max value of $103.8 million, but as most lengthy contracts go, those raw figures aren’t likely to be met. The number that really matters most is the $67.3 million scheduled over the first three years. After three years, most modern big money contracts get shuffled around is some way, either by a restructure or another extension. Original reports suggested $60 million was guaranteed in the contract -- which would behind only Colin Kaepernick for most in a contract -- but the NFL Network's Albert Breer reported on Wednesday morning the full guarantees in the contract are $31 million with $60 guaranteed for injury only.

Even if those total numbers aren’t likely to be reached, that’s still a significant amount of money given to a quarterback that some would argue has not lived up to his number-one overall pick status. Luckily, as an analytics site, we have numbers to look at to judge Newton’s first four seasons in the league. You were going to make those judgements anyway, so let the numbers help.

The Story So Far

By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Newton has been an above average quarterback up to this point in his career. (NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.)

In three of Newton’s first four seasons, he finished above average in Passing NEP per drop back, which measures efficiency on a per-play basis. Though he has yet to rank in the top 10 of that category in a season, he’s consistently been among the better quarterbacks in the league when it comes to throwing the ball. Below are Newton’s ranks among quarterbacks each year in Passing NEP per drop back. The average is taken among all quarterbacks in a given season who dropped back at least 100 times that year.

YearPassing NEP per DBRankLeague Avg.

Newton isn’t out there battling with Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning on an efficiency basis, but if those are your expectations for Newton, they’re probably too high. That’s not Newton’s game, and that’s not how Carolina’s offense is built. That doesn’t mean Newton can’t sling the ball when needed. He certainly can -- his two best seasons by Passing NEP per drop back came in his two seasons with the most pass attempts.

Looking at the table above, instead of focusing on the three good seasons Newton had to start his career, too many will fixate on the drop-off in production during 2014. Let’s address that. Newton came into the season hurt, and his health didn’t get much better. He had offseason ankle surgery, and the recovery took long, causing him to miss all of OTA’s and be held out of the season’s first game. It really took Newton until a Week 6 game against the Cincinnati Bengals to look like he was 100 percent healthy. Then, later in the season, Newton was in a car accident that flipped his truck and caused two fractures in his lower back. He only missed one game, Week 10 against Tampa Bay.

It’s probably not fair to say two games against the Buccaneers would have turned Newton’s season around, but getting to play against the league’s 24th-ranked defense by schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP couldn’t have hurt. The Tampa Bay defense did wonders for backup Derek Anderson, making him look like the most efficient quarterback in the league -- literally. Anderson’s 0.35 Passing NEP per drop back was the best in the league among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs.

The Money

While Newton is paid like one of the best quarterbacks now, that ranking will be bumped as new contracts for Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning get worked out. If Newton got paid like a top-10 quarterback presently, the value could drop to around the 15th-highest contract once the deals for the other quarterbacks are in place.

Newton’s shown the ability to be mentioned along with the better quarterbacks in the league, and has shown more promise to this point than Ryan Tannehill, who recently got an extension of his own.

There's the argument, as there was for Tannehill, that Carolina could have waited to see how this upcoming season plays out before making a commitment to Newton, especially after the injury-plagued 2014. Adam Schefter reported Newton will make as much as $31 million this season, but $22.5 million of that will be in an upfront signing bonus that will spread out on the cap through 2019 for accounting purposes. The contract will actually save the Panthers over $1 million this season by avoiding price of the fifth-year option. Cap hits increase on the contract as the seasons progress, but never over $23.2 million and the overall salary cap is likely to grow at a faster pace than the money Newton is owed. And with just $30 million guaranteed, there could be plenty of wiggle room to adjust the commitment towards the end of the deal.

Going Forward

As is the case with many quarterbacks -- usually more than most like to admit -- the success of Newton will hinge on how the rest of the roster is built. Newton had a new top receiver during 2014 in Kelvin Benjamin, and will need to get used to a new number-two guy in Devin Funchess in 2015. That will also come behind an offensive line that is expected to feature Michael Oher at left tackle. That’s not preferable for any quarterback, let alone one sacked on 7.8 percent on his drop backs last season.

To this point, Newton has shown the ability to lead the team on his own when needed. That’s something to look for with all too used “franchise player” designation, and something that can’t be said about enough of the newly paid quarterbacks over the past few seasons. Think to yourself the last time you thought Cincinnati won a game because of Andy Dalton, or the Chiefs won a game because of Alex Smith. Then go watch Newton’s Week 9 game against the Bengals this past season and wonder if Carolina feels comfortable with their investment.

Newton has been much better in his career than many have given him credit for. Out of the new mid-tier of extended quarterbacks, Newton sits on the top of the list of players likely to live up to the deal.