4 years after winning NFL MVP, Cam Newton may be headed to a backup role

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
·5 min read

Asked to perform a Cam Newton free agency autopsy on Tuesday, a senior talent evaluator who spent a portion of the offseason examining the NFL’s robust quarterback market began in a methodical and simple place. He went to the backup spot on the league’s QB depth charts.

“Start with teams that filled their backup roles over the last few weeks,” he said. “If they paid anything or traded anything [for a backup], it’s because they know who their starter is.”

The list started to shrink from offseason acquisitions. Nick Foles removed the Chicago Bears. Kyle Allen clipped the Washington Redskins. The Cleveland Browns were peeled off with Case Keenum; Marcus Mariota bumped the Las Vegas Raiders; Chase Daniel removed the Detroit Lions; and Jeff Driskel bounced the Denver Broncos.

Next? Teams with cemented starters. That bumped off a large portion of the NFL – either because the top slot on the depth chart was owned by a future Hall of Famer, a longtime highly-paid veteran or a budding young draft pick who had flirted with success.

After that, the evaluator crossed off teams he believes will take a quarterback at the top of this year’s draft, removing the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers.

Suddenly the onslaught had whittled the list to one team.

Sep 12, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks off the field during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks off the field during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. (Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

“The [Jacksonville] Jaguars,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”

What about the New England Patriots?

“I don’t think they signed [Brian] Hoyer to put him or [Jarrett] Stidham at third string,” he said.

For this evaluator, who played a role in a quarterback signing this offseason, this is the shape of Cam Newton’s starting market. One team. And not just any team. This one isn’t even a convenient fit. The Jaguars are in the midst of a youth movement. They traded Foles to Chicago earlier this month and appeared to hand the keys to second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew. Bringing Newton into the Jacksonville fold would only invite some of the same uncertainty that hovered over the Jaguars’ quarterback spot in 2019.

This is where Newton is, entering a free agent highway with few exits available and an almost unbelievable destination for the league’s 2015 MVP:

A backup role.

Before you even get to Newton’s medical history and scheme fit, you have to start with job availability. There is almost none when it comes to starting quarterback spots across the league. The problem isn’t Newton specific, either. Longtime Bengals starter Andy Dalton and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers No. 1 pick Jameis Winston are dealing with the same thin market and the same lack of interest when it comes to a starting job.

A small part of the issue? This completely disjointed offseason, where any quarterback signed could be spending the vast majority of his time away from his new team.

A larger part of the problem is simply the intersection of young quarterbacks who have flooded the league (including 10 presumed starters in 2020 who have come from the past two drafts), along with some resilient gray-beard veterans who have held starting jobs into their late 30s and early 40s (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger).

Once it was clear that latter foursome was all returning for 2020, it didn’t take teams or agents very long to figure out that there would likely be more starting quality quarterbacks than spots for them in free agency. What nobody saw coming was the Panthers shifting into an overhaul that would put Newton on the street at the worst possible time. Not only does his free agency come in the midst of a pandemic that will keep teams from doing a full medical on him, it comes after season’s were plagued by shoulder and ankle injuries. A reality that isn’t being taken lightly, particularly after Panthers owner David Tepper raised the issue of Newton’s health a handful of times this offseason.

With league rules prohibiting teams from working out Newton and performing the medical check they’ll require, it leaves him in a tough spot. He will either have to wait for an opportunity to present itself – wait for the NFL to get moving again – or hope that someone who left the Panthers’ nest is now in position to roll the dice on him. Even those doors appear to be closing down quickly.

His former coach, Ron Rivera, is leading a Redskins team that just acquired Allen from the Panthers and has 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins looking to hold the starting reins. The general manager who drafted Newton in 2011, Marty Hurney, just cut him loose. The other two NFL general managers with Carolina personnel ties to Newton — the New York Giants’ Dave Gettleman and Buffalo Bills’ Brandon Beane — are both developing promising young quarterbacks. And the offensive coordinator from Newton’s MVP season, Mike Shula, is the quarterbacks coach of a Broncos team that is all-in on second-year starter Drew Lock.

That’s an almost unreal set of circumstances all slamming together at once for Newton: injury concerns, a disjointed offseason, tight starting opportunities and basically no lifelines available from former Carolina coaches or personnel men. Not to mention that Dalton and Winston also have agents scouring the exact NFL market, hoping for even the faintest chance at a quarterback competition in a place like Jacksonville or New England.

Map out the landscape and it appears to leave Newton on a road he never could have imagined when last season started. Not only is he out of Carolina, he appears more likely to be supporting another starting quarterback rather than suiting up as one.

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