Cam Newton is worth new $100 million deal with Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton doesn't always get the respect of a top NFL quarterback. He gets criticized for throwing off his back foot, for making bad decisions, for not being a more accurate pocket passer and for having only one playoff win in four seasons.

But there's no denying the Carolina Panthers are better with Newton than without him.

So it wasn't just the best move for management to give Newton a new five-year, $103.8 million extension, including $60 million guaranteed, on Tuesday.

It was the smartest move.

Newton's record is a mediocre 30-31-1. His 1-2 playoff record won't get him invited to the White House.

But Newton is anything but a mediocre quarterback. He has the most rushing yards (2,571) by a quarterback in his first four NFL seasons during the Super Bowl era.

Only Dan Marino (144) and Peyton Manning (118) have had more touchdowns in their first four seasons than Newton, who has 115 (82 passing, 33 rushing).

When healthy, which he wasn't most of last season, and surrounded by solid weapons and protection, which he hasn't been most of his pro career, Newton potentially is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league.

His 33 rushing touchdowns, behind an at-best-average offensive line, is the most by a quarterback since 2011. Running back LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing in 2013, has the same number of touchdowns during that span -- and 17 of those came in 2011.

Newton always has been special. He won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to an undefeated record and national championship in 2010. A year later, he became the first NFL rookie to throw for 4,000 yards, as well as the first rookie quarterback to rush for more than 700 yards.

Newton wasn't being cocky or arrogant when he recently said no quarterback "has ever been who I am trying to be." He was stating the obvious in that he defies the normal NFL quarterback model in terms of size (6-foot-5, 245 pounds), speed and arm strength.

The Panthers finally are getting Newton adequate weapons, which makes him more dangerous and gives him the opportunity to make this contract well worth the bottom line.

They drafted 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin (73 catches, 1,008 yards, nine touchdowns) in the first round in 2014 and 6-4 Devin Funchess (15 touchdowns in three years at Michigan) in the second round this year.

With Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who had a career-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns last season, the Panthers have a solid lineup.

With the exception of an elite speed receiver -- and Carolina seems satisfied that Ted Ginn Jr., and 2014 undrafted rookie Philly Brown can fill that need -- Newton has what receivers coach Ricky Proehl calls "every weapon in our arsenal."

The Panthers also have a solid backfield in Jonathan Stewart, second in the NFL in rushing the last four weeks of 2014 after being named the starter, and fullback Mike Tolbert. They have nice pieces around them, such as 2015 fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the SEC in rushing last season.

The big question remains the offensive line. If free-agent acquisition Michael Oher can resurrect his career at left tackle, and the rest of the group performs as well as it did during a 4-0 regular-season finish last season, Newton will be in his best position to succeed since entering the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft.

Carolina averaged 199.25 yards rushing over the final four games, compared to 71 yards in its first four. It gave up only five sacks in the last four games after giving up 19 in the previous four.

If Oher flops, the question becomes: Can the Panthers moving forward afford a top-flight left tackle under the salary cap? The answer: yes.

But do they have to?

General manager Dave Gettleman has spent the past two years digging Carolina out of salary-cap hell. The Panthers have gone from more than $16 million over the cap when Gettleman arrived in January 2013 to more than $16 million under the cap earlier this offseason.

They still had more than $7 million in cap room after signing their rookie class.

Gettleman has proven he can build an adequate line for a bargain. The Panthers, according to ESPN Stats & Information, ranked 17th in money committed ($18.9 million) to the line in 2013 when they were 12-4. They ranked 26th ($16.3 million) last season when they won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record.

The eight teams -- Browns ($30.3 million), Eagles ($29.2M), Jets ($26.9M), Redskins ($26.6M), Rams ($26.2M), Titans ($26.1M), Falcons ($26.1M) and Saints ($25.2M) -- that spent the most on the line last season didn't make the playoffs. Eight of the bottom 12 spenders made the playoffs.

That many of Newton's key weapons are in the first or second years of their deals gives Gettleman time to sign key defensive players such as linebacker Luke Kuechly and tackle Star Lotulelei to long-term deals.

That Carolina in the next two years will be out from under the monster contracts of defensive end Charles Johnson ($20,020,000 toward the 2015 cap) and Stewart ($8.3 million in 2015) also helps.

But it all starts with having a quarterback at least worthy of being in the conversation as a top-15 talent. If you don't have one, you're headed for disaster. Just ask Cleveland and Tampa Bay.

Look at the teams that made the playoffs in 2014. With the exception of the injury-plagued Arizona Cardinals, they all had stable situations under center.

That Newton is 14-4 in regular-season games played after November, a win total only Patriots QB Tom Brady surpasses since the start of 2011, increases his value.

That Newton is set in 2015 to earn close to $11 million in endorsements, a number that only Peyton Manning surpasses, increases his worth in other areas. He brings national attention to the organization like nobody has since the franchise was formed in 1995.

Newton is to Carolina what Manning is to Denver, what Brady is to New England.

He doesn't always get the respect those players do because he hasn't won a Super Bowl, but there's no doubt Carolina is better with him.

And he's worth every penny.