So what better place to start a position-by-position analysis of the roster heading into free agency and the draft than with the position that has Carolina’s most high-profile player.
First up: Quarterbacks
2016 grade: C–plus. The plus is only because Newton rushed for a career-high 754 yards on a career-high 139 carries after having offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. Without his running ability, the Panthers probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. But otherwise the 2015 NFL MVP had a rather mediocre season -- on and off the field.
Under contract (2018, salary-cap number): Cam Newton ($21,500,000), Garrett Gilbert ($555,000). Total: $22,055,000
Key free agents: Derek Anderson, 34.
The good: Newton was good enough, particularly with his legs, to help the Panthers to an 11-5 record and a trip to the playoffs. He didn’t miss a game due to injury, which was also a plus. You could see at times how first-round pick Christian McCaffrey, who had a team-best 80 catches, can help take the pressure off Newton with his ability to catch out of the backfield. Newton had one of the best games of his career in the 31-26 playoff loss to New Orleans, completing 60 percent of his passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions) and rushing eight times for 37 yards. He just didn’t have enough performances like that in 2017 to take his game and the Panthers to another level.
The bad: On the field, Newton’s 3,302 passing yards were the second fewest of his career, and his 3.3 interception percentage tied for the worst of his career. His performance is in large part why coach Ron Rivera opted after the season to fire offensive coordinator Mike Shula and bring in Norv Turner. Rivera said Newton needed a new set of eyes, a person with new ideas, to help him grow as a player. Off the field, Oikos yogurt dropped Newton as a spokesperson after the quarterback made light of a female reporter for asking him a football question about routes. Gatorade, another company Newton represents, called the quarterback's comments "objectionable and disrespectful to all women." The publicity over this negated much of the good that Newton did off the field through his foundation.
The draft: What the Panthers do with Anderson may play a role here. He will be 35 before the season. He didn’t have a particularly good 2017 preseason, getting most of the reps while Newton rehabbed the shoulder. Interim general manager Marty Hurney likes having a young quarterback on the roster to develop. Whether he believes Gilbert can be that player remains to be seen. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Panthers used a late draft pick on a quarterback. They have two in the seventh round, picking up an extra one in the trade that sent wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo. Perhaps a player like TCU’s Kenny Hill or Troy’s Brandon Silvers will be worth a flier.
Final thought: What Nick Foles did after Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending injury to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over New England opened eyes on just how important the backup quarterback is. Newton is 28 and susceptible to injury as much as he runs. He also faces what could be a make-or-break year if Turner can’t help take the quarterback’s game to another level. Is Anderson good enough to do what Foles did? He was 2-0 when Newton missed games during the 2014 season, but is 0-2 since. Turner likes having a veteran backup on the roster, and with a lot available in free agency, the Panthers could move on from Anderson. The salary cap could play a role in this, though. Anderson would come at lower price than others available would, and Carolina now has only about $19 million in cap space.