The Philadelphia Eagles just won the Super Bowl behind second-string quarterback Nick Foles. The Super Bowl runner-up New England Patriots have a history of investing early picks in quarterbacks to hold the clipboard for Tom Brady.
In Carolina, free agent Derek Anderson will turn 35 in June. While Anderson has been a consummate pro in Carolina, it may be time for the Panthers to let him go then steal a page from the Patriots and draft Cam Newton’s backup.
Drafting a promising quarterback in 2018 could be important for the Panthers’ short-term and long-term planning. In the short-term, the young quarterback could provide a viable four-year fill-in for the oft-injured Cam Newton. In the long run, Cam becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and Carolina needs to start preparing for what that could potentially mean.
While the Panthers have a ton of roster holes to fill, investing an early pick in a quarterback could be the right move.
Superman and Kryptonite
We all know Cam Newton has a long injury history, which is not surprising given the number of hits he absorbs. If Superman suffers a season-ending injury in the near future, the Panthers season would most likely go down the toilet. It shouldn’t be good enough that if Cam hits injured reserve then the collective response from Panthers is, “Welp…how is next year’s draft class looking?”
The Eagles just won the Super Bowl with their second-string quarterback.
And none of us should be surprised if Cam ends up suffering a season-ending injury in the near future. In 2017 starting quarterbacks including Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson, Josh McCown, and Trevor Siemian each missed significant time due to injury.
The Panthers need a better contingency plan than “Welp!” if Cam ends up hitting injured reserve at some point.
The Patriots’ Strategy
The Eagles won the Super Bowl behind backup Nick Foles who is playing on a two-year, $11 million contract with $7 million guaranteed. The Panthers simply do not have the cap room to invest that type of money in a veteran free agent.
Carolina should instead strongly consider following the Patriots philosophy of investing a second- or third-round pick to hold the clipboard behind Cam.
In 2005 the Patriots drafted Matt Cassell in the seventh round. In 2008, Tom Brady missed the entire season but Cassell still led the team to an 11-5 record, though they missed the playoffs. The 2008 season was the final year of Cassell’s rookie deal, so New England slapped the franchise tag on him then traded him to the Chiefs for a second round pick (No. 34 overall) and veteran Mike Vrabel.
In 2008 New England invested a third round pick in Kevin O’Connell and his NFL career never panned out. This was a miss by the Patriots.
In 2011 the Patriots took Ryan Mallett in the third round, then they selected Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft. When Garoppolo surpassed Mallett on the depth chart in 2014, the Patriots traded Mallett for a conditional sixth- or seventh-round pick. In 2017, the final year of Garoppolo’s rookie deal, New England traded him to the 49ers for a second round pick.
If the Panthers select the right quarterback in 2018 he could become a viable backup to Cam for three years, then Carolina could trade him for another pick in the future. By drafting the right quarterback now, the selection becomes something of a rolling future asset.
The Salary Cap Savings
Another primary benefit of investing an early pick in a young, viable backup quarterback is the salary cap. No position is more important than quarterback, and no position is more expensive. Derek Anderson, for example, is coming off a two-year, $4.7 million contract with the Panthers, and that’s considered to be a team-friendly deal.
Carolina has their second round pick plus two third round picks in 2018. If they invest one of these picks in a promising quarterback, the contract for a late second round pick would be similar to the 2017 No. 55 overall pick Dalvin Tomlinson who is on a four-year, $4.6 million contract. His cap hit in 2020 will be $1.5 million. A third round pick would be closer to a four-year, $4.0 million deal with a $1.0 million cap hit in the final year.
If the Panthers invest a second- or third-round pick on a promising quarterback in 2018, his cap hit in 2021 would be somewhere between $1.0-$1.5 million, which could be a great value for a capable fourth-year vet.
The 2021 season is important because that’s when Cam Newton becomes a 32-year-old free agent.
What if things go haywire between now and then and Cam doesn’t re-sign in Carolina? What if the combination of age and injury sap him of his unique athleticism by 2021? What if Cam doesn’t like Carolina’s new ownership group and decides to leave for one final, massive contract? What if both parties simply agree it’s just time to go their separate ways?
In the scenario that Cam leaves in 2021, a quarterback drafted in 2018 would be entering his fourth season, which is the final season of his rookie deal. His cap hit would be around $1.5 million. He could then be re-signed as the long-term starter in 2022.
Or, if Cam re-signs in 2021, then the backup could be traded for other assets, assuming Carolina selects a Cassell/Garoppolo-type player in 2018.
Now, I hope Cam retires a Panther. But Carolina would also be wise to begin preparing for the future. We all remember the 2-14 dumpster fire in 2010 when the Panthers had no successor in place for Jake Delhomme. That sad history cannot repeat itself in 2021.
The challenge with drafting a quarterback in 2018 is the Panthers have so many roster holes to fill. Carolina needs immediate contributors at wide receiver, offensive line, defensive end, safety, and cornerback.
But again, no position is more important than quarterback. Even if Derek Anderson is re-signed, it would be shocking for Carolina to remain a playoff contender with him under center in the event Cam gets injured. While a rookie quarterback would also likely struggle to fill in for an injured Newton, at least that experience would go toward his long-term development instead of being lost on a declining vet like Anderson.
Another assumption is that promising quarterbacks will still be available in the second and third rounds of the 2018 draft. But that’s why the Panthers have a scouting department. Remember, Tom Brady was taken in the sixth round and Nick Foles was taken in the third. Things seemed to have worked out just fine in New England and Philly.
The Eagles and the Patriots took different paths in backing up their quarterbacks as they made their way to the Super Bowl.
Carolina can’t do what the Eagles did by signing a Nick Foles-type free agent in 2018.
It may be time for them to follow the Patriots plan and look long-term by investing an early-round pick in 2018 to back up Cam Newton.
If a Cassell/Garoppolo-type quarterback is available in Rounds 2-3, should the Panthers draft him?
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