Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton is a happy man, the recent recipient of the NFL's latest $100 million-plus contract extension. Carolina locks up its man, Newton becomes one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, and the deal sets the bar for the next round of quarterback contracts, namely those of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.
The deal's structure
Structure: The structure of quarterback contracts can be complex -- and oftentimes the original face value ends up being a window dressing, once bonuses and escalators are taken into account. Nonetheless, here's what we've heard:
It had been reported that Newton's camp set out to get a better deal than that of Matt Ryan's $103.75 million extension, and they achieved their goal. Newton's contract is an extension reportedly worth $103.76 million over five years and will keep him in Carolina through the 2020 season.
Newton had been slated to make $14.67 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, but will now reportedly receive a $30 million in 2015, including a $22.5 million signing bonus and a $7.5 million roster bonus. Newton's notably due to make $67.5 million over the first three years of the deal, a three-year cash payout that would trail only Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger among quarterback contracts. This is a nice, big payday for Newton, obviously.
Length of contract: Negotiations are different for every player, but for a player of Newton's caliber at the most premium position in all of sports, teams will look for longer contracts. Why? To extend the length of time the club has control of the player, and for cost control that will beat inflation. With NFL salaries rising substantially with the ever-growing cap -- especially at quarterback -- locking a top-tier player down at 2015 "average per year" rates is the smart move for a front office, with the caveat that they obviously believe his play will continue at a steady pace and/or improve significantly.
Russell Wilson is reportedly looking for a shorter four-year contract extension, which would give him the leverage to renegotiate another contract sooner -- at presumably much higher rates -- so the length of Cam's deal is important. Perhaps Newton's big cash payout in the first three years was an incentive in order to get him to agree to that five-year extension -- not to mention an incentive to sign early, before the season starts.
Guarantees: The original reported guaranteed money for Newton's deal was $60 million*. I'm going to be careful and not say too much on the guaranteed money at this point because this area is frequently convoluted -- "guaranteed" is a surprisingly ambiguous term in the world of NFL contracts -- but for now, it's looking like Cam is getting a big-time chunk of guaranteed cash.
*Update: per NFL.com's Albert Breer, that $60 million is guaranteed for injury only, while $31 million is fully guaranteed.
New money average per year: NFL teams and the NFLPA generally judge a contract by two important factors -- guarantees, and "new money average per year." In Cam's case, his new money APY is $20.75 million. What's the significance of this?
Where does Newton's deal stack up?
Well, let's take a quick tour around the world of quarterback contracts, shall we?
Aaron Rodgers' deal with the Packers is worth $110 million over five years, with $54 million guaranteed. That puts him at the $22 million mark in new money average per year. Ben Roethlisberger recently signed a four-year, $87.4 million contract extension that has $31 million guaranteed and that averages $21.9 million in new money APY. So, for simplicity in thinking, $22 million per year in new money APY sets the bar for where quarterbacks' agents want to be. That $54 million in guarantees for Rodgers is/was the highest we'd yet seen.
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Just below Rodgers and Big Ben, we find the five-year extension that Matt Ryan signed in 2013 that's worth $103.75 million with $42 million in guaranteed money, averaging $20.75 million in new money per year. In 2013, Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120 million deal that included $29 million in guaranteed money and averaged $20 million in new money per year. In 2012, Drew Brees signed a five-year, $100 million deal with $40 million in guarantees and which averaged $20 million in new money APY.
These numbers should give you an idea of the "market" for the top-tier quarterbacks. Cam's deal falls right below Rodgers and Big Ben, but well above that of another recent signee, Ryan Tannehill. In late May, Tannehill signed a four-year contract extension with $77 million in new money, or about $19.25 million in new money APY, with $21.5 million guaranteed.
On the other hand, there's been a trend toward "pay as you go" contracts for quarterbacks that teams are hesitant to fully commit to, in particular for Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. Dalton's is a six-year, $96 million extension with only $17 million guaranteed, leaving the Bengals the opportunity to walk away from it at any time with minimal effect. Likewise, Kaepernick's six-year, $114 million extension includes only $12.9 million fully guaranteed. The rest of Kaepernick's deal is rife with performance and per-game escalators and guaranteed for injury only, and the Niners can walk away with relatively little loss each year.
What does this tell us about how the Panthers feel about Newton? Obviously, they view him as the face of the franchise, the team leader, a rising player, and a key piece to build around. This is Carolina fully committing to the 2011 first-overall pick.
Now you've got to keep the fact in mind that quarterbacks of this ilk rarely play out the duration of their contract, so those money figures aren't the be-all end-all. As Russell Wilson's agent, Mark Rodgers, pointed out to 710 ESPN in Seattle recently,
"This is where I think it gets technical and tedious, at times: NFL contracts are complicated, right? There are a lot of details in a contract. Obviously there are signing bonuses and there's guaranteed money -- in football, obviously, guaranteed money. Total value, with quarterbacks' deals it's somewhat of a misnomer because total value presumes players are going to make every penny of that deal. You guys know, you go down the history ... look at Tony Romo's deal. Tony Romo has renegotiated his contract almost every, single year. Ben Roethlisberger just did a renegotiation. Tom Brady. Peyton Manning. Drew Brees is probably getting ready to do one at some point. And so the truth of the matter is that these contracts for these quarterbacks never get to the end."
So, right now, we can take the contract at its face value, but Newton's not likely to play it all the way out anyway. Because of this, the three-year cash payout is becoming a bigger negotiating point, and Newton's camp did well for themselves in this area.
Where is Newton in his career?
Newton's 2014 season was statistically his worst -- he set career lows in passing yards (3,127), passing yards per attempt (7.0), touchdown passes (18), rushing yards (539), rushing touchdowns (5), rushing yards per attempt (5.2) and quarterback rating (82.1). However, it's worth pointing out he batted through a number of injuries, including ankle surgery prior to the season, then two fractures in his lower back suffered in a two-car accident in December.
Additionally, the Panthers' offensive line play was bad again last year and his receiving corps was being rebuilt, with a rookie in Kelvin Benjamin as his top option on the outside. Newton made due, though, and carried the offense late in the year, leading his team to a must-win Week 17 game at Atlanta to secure a playoffs berth, then he led them to a Wild Card round win over the Arizona Cardinals. They even went to Seattle and gave the Seahawks a run for their money in the Divisional round, knocking at the door until late in the fourth quarter before the Seahawks put it away. During the late part of the year, the Panthers were one of the league's hottest teams, in a large part due to their excellent defense, but their smashmouth, physical offense, led by Newton, was key.
Many still view Newton as a quarterback that is on the rise, one who's improved in the technical nuances of the position after coming out of Auburn as a raw, triple-option style college quarterback. He's generally viewed as a more mature player, a better leader and one that's come into his own as the face of the franchise.
Over the last two years, Newton has led the Panthers in seven fourth-quarter comebacks and put together six game-winning drives -- compared to just two in each category over his first two seasons. He's led Carolina to back-to-back NFC South Division titles, and he's got a playoff win under his belt.
So, have we seen his peak? Despite the down statistical year in 2014, Carolina is obviously betting that the best is still ahead -- and the franchise made a step in the right direction by drafting Devin Funchess in the second round to pair with last year's first rounder, Kelvin Benjamin. With better weapons at his disposal and with better health this next season, the Panthers believe Newton will rebound.
Many will question the amount of money Newton gets with his new extension, but he's truly an interesting and largely unique case study. Newton's not your prototypical quarterback, so judging him against others at the position may be misleading. Newton can run the ball between the tackles like a fullback, take a read-option keeper to the outside and beat top defensive ends and outside linebackers to the edge. He's deadly in the red-zone, and is a touchdown maker among the highest order. In fact, only two players have accounted for more touchdowns (throwing and running) than Newton's 115 over their first four seasons -- Dan Marino (144) and Peyton Manning (118). A good illustration of how Newton plays the position is that he's the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and rush for at least 500 yards in each of his first four seasons. Since Cam came into the league, only Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and Arian Foster have more rushing touchdowns.
Apart from all that, here's what I keep landing on: There are only 10-15 "good" or better quarterbacks in the world, right? It's tough to know where exactly Newton falls on the NFL quarterback hierarchy -- I personally have him somewhere among those "good to very good" -- but one thing is pretty certain: It's difficult enough to find a quarterback competent enough to lead an NFL offense, so the Panthers really had an easy choice based on what he's proven over his first four seasons. Pay the man, continue to develop his skills, continue to put weapons around him, or hope to strike gold at some point in the next decade and land a franchise quarterback in the draft.
What this means for the Young Guns
The natural question that Newton's deal raises is: What does this mean for Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson? Wilson's entering his contract year and Luck's fifth-year option for 2016 has already been picked up, but both are due to receive big-time extensions that have the potential to blow Newton's new contract out of the water.
Both Luck and Wilson have put together stronger resumes, so both are expected to leap-frog Newton's deal in the near future. The things to keep an eye on for Luck and Wilson are the main factors I've addressed in this piece above: guaranteed money, new money average per year, and cash payout over the first three years of the deal. Newton's contract extension sets a bar that both Luck and Wilson will shatter -- will they both get in the neighborhood of $23 million in new money average per year? What will their guarantees look like -- will they surpass Rodgers' $54 million? Both seem more likely today. Look for big-time signing bonuses for both that ensure these gunslingers are going to be making on par or more with the expected $67 million Newton will earn his first three seasons.