Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is healthy, feeling good and finishing up the last of his degree requirements at Auburn.
The next order of business is a long-term contract.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that he hopes the team can get a deal done with Newton before the start of the season but that he doesn’t believe the situation would become a distraction if Newton plays out the final year of his rookie contract.
Newton is scheduled to make a guaranteed $14.7 million this year after the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option, part of every first-round pick’s deal under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
The Panthers could begin using the franchise tag on Newton next offseason to keep him under contract.
But Rivera hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“Personally, yes I would,” Rivera said when asked if he wants the negotiations to wrap up before the season. “But they have a timetable, both sides do I imagine. Both sides have a plan and hopefully we can all get everything worked out together.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has said repeatedly he views Newton as the franchise quarterback, although Gettleman declined to discuss the contract talks this week at the NFL owners meetings.
The Panthers met with Newton’s representatives at the NFL combine last month, but Newton could be content to wait until Seattle’s Russell Wilson reaches a long-term agreement and resets the market for quarterbacks.
Rivera doesn’t believe the contract situation will be a distraction for Newton.
“I think our quarterback is a smart, savvy young man, understands the dynamics of the game,” Rivera said. “I think he’s the kind of guy who’s able to focus on certain aspects of the game and put things aside. Obviously, that’s a work in progress right now.”
Rivera said Newton told him recently he’s healthy and feeling good after dealing with a number of injuries in 2014, beginning with offseason surgery on his left ankle.
Rivera said he wants Newton to sharpen his “position-specific skills” to become a more polished quarterback.
“I think he relies so much on his great athleticism that sometimes he’s not as sound as he needs to be with his fundamentals,” Rivera said. “Now as he continues to grow, I think that’s the next step is being sound in everything he does.”
It was last March when Newton had surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. Newton missed most of OTAs and minicamp, was limited in training camp and was still dealing with lingering pain into October, when he said the surgery was more extensive than he was told.
Newton also fractured his ribs during an exhibition at New England that sidelined him for the season opener at Tampa Bay. Throw in his December accident that totaled his truck and sent him to the hospital with a lower back injury, and it adds up to a “different year” for Newton, as Rivera called it.
A year later, Newton feels like a new man, according to Rivera.
“He said, ‘Coach, this is the best I’ve felt in a long time.’ That was good to hear, I’ll tell you that right now,” Rivera said during the NFC coaches breakfast. “Just listening to him talk about how good he feels. That was good news.”
Newton is taking classes at Auburn for the second year in a row, and Rivera said he’s on schedule to graduate this spring. Rivera hopes Newton will be in Charlotte when the voluntary offseason workouts begin April 20.
Newton, who turns 26 in May, finished with career lows in most passing categories last season when he missed his first two games since entering the league as the No. 1 pick in 2011. But offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s use of the no-huddle offense helped Newton get in a rhythm late in the year and contributed to the Panthers’ playoff push.
Rivera said the Panthers would continue to mix in the no-huddle, but he wants Newton to take less of a beating as he gets older.
“He’s still a target, and he does get hurt. An example is what happened in the preseason against New England. He took a pretty good shot,” Rivera said. “We don’t necessarily want him to run as much as he does on his own. … But the type of competitor he is, he’s trying to look for ways to extend plays and make things happen.”
Newton remains a highly marketable athlete, with sponsorship deals with Gatorade, Under Armour, Beats by Dre, GMC and Drakkar cologne.
With all of Newton’s outside interests, Rivera was asked if he thought Newton might want to test free agency at some point and play in a bigger market.
“I don’t know. And I don’t want to speculate on what his thought process might be,” Rivera said. “But Dave’s talked about him. We do view him as our franchise quarterback. So going from there, I’d like to believe both sides can get together and we’ll see what happens.”
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