CAROLINA PANTHERS UPDATE 

lWHAT'S NEXT FOR NEWTON? PANTHERS REMAIN SILENT ON THEIR PLANS AT QB

As Associated Press sports writer Steve Reed noted this week, while Cam Newton remains optimistic about his chances of playing for the Carolina Panthers next season, the team is remaining mostly silent on the quarterback’s future.

“He’s rehabbing, that’s all I can say,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney told Reed in reference to the foot injury that caused Newton to miss the final 14 games last season.

Reed added that Hurney refused to answer several follow-up questions about Newton’s future with the team or the comments the QB made recently at the Super Bowl were he said he’s “absolutely” certain he’ll be back in Carolina.

Newton said last week that he had an “unbelievable conversation” with Panthers owner David Tepper, new coach Matt Rhule and Hurney.

“I left that meeting inspired,” Newton said. “I told them, ‘You won’t find another person in that locker room with more to prove -- not only to you, but I got to prove to myself.’”

But Hurney isn’t discussing that meeting -- or much else.

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra suggested, "Perhaps Hurney's decision not to comment isn't rooted in cloak-and-dagger politics. Maybe that decision will ultimately be out of his hands, so why bother remarking? Yet, it's hard to read a GM refusing to comment about a starting QB without raising an eyebrow like you're imitating The Rock.

"Generally these types of interviews are all blustery smoke. With the GM saying things like, 'We love QB X. He's a great player. He's rehabbing, and we're planning for him to be fully recovered this offseason.' Even if they plan to move on later, the hot air fills the void with moisture that is easily brushed past down the road.

"Hurney's mum attitude toward Newton's questions peaks more interest than hollow platitudes would have in this instance."

Indeed, the Panthers haven’t given any assurances they plan to bring Newton back next season. And as Reed stressed, the reality is they might not know at this point what direction they’re headed with the 31-year-old former league MVP. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, citing a source, said the Panthers want to see Newton work out on the field in March, when he should be fully recovered from the surgery, to see what he can do.

“Then we’ll see what happens,” the source told Fowler.

That makes sense.

Remember; Tepper has previously said the team would wait to see how Newton responds to rehabilitation following surgery on his foot before making any decisions about the QB. Hurney declined to say how that rehab is going or when the team expects Newton to be healthy.

If Newton is healthy, a league source close to the situation told ESPN.com's David Newton that he believes Carolina will keep the veteran signal caller in a “prove it” year.

Beyond all that, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport has suggested on multiple occasions since the Super Bowl that the Panthers could put Newton out as potential trade bait to add to their draft capital.

Rapoport has also indicated Newton would "welcome a trade to Chicago" -- which Newton has since denied -- and that it is "highly unlikely" that Cam is with the Panthers in 2020.

Whatever the case, the Panthers are embarking on a major rebuilding process after hiring a college head coach in Rhule and a young offensive coordinator in Joe Brady. At LSU, Brady was the Tigers passing game coordinator. Quarterback Joe Burrow helped lead the team to a national title.

The Panthers have also lost perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly to retirement and released 34-year-old veteran tight end Greg Olsen.

That has brought into question why the team would want to bring back Newton when they appear to be headed in a different direction.

Newton has struggled in recent years, losing his last eight starts for the Panthers while battling through shoulder and foot issues. He played only two games last season and failed to throw a touchdown pass. He was a non-factor in the run game, which has been his strength through the years.

There is a huge financial element to consider, too.

Newton is entering the final year of a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension. He’s scheduled to cost $21.1 million under this season’s salary cap, but the team could free up $19 million in cap space by trading or releasing the league’s 2015 Most Valuable Player.

So if the team parts ways with Newton, they’d only be on the hook for a $2 million cap hit in 2020.

Tepper said in December that his focus is avoiding the “long-term mediocrity” that has plagued the franchise.

He’s made it clear that he wants sustained excellence and went out of his way to say that will take some time and patience.

That said, the Panthers don’t have much proven depth behind Newton at quarterback.

Kyle Allen struggled in Newton’s absence with more turnovers than touchdown passes, while rookie Will Grier failed to impress after starting the final two games of the season, although the Panthers were plagued by injuries at the time.

The Panthers have the No. 7 pick in the NFL draft and drafting a quarterback remains an option.

However, a Brady-Burrow reunion in Carolina seems unlikely given the Cincinnati Bengals have the No. 1 pick and appear enamored with the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.

Meanwhile, regardless of what happens at QB, David Newton pointed out this is the end of an era.

Cam and Olsen were one of the most potent combinations in the league from 2011 to 2016, particularly 2014-16, when Olsen became the first tight end in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in three consecutive years.

Their chemistry was a big reason the Panthers made the Super Bowl in 2015 and Newton was the league MVP. Olsen had a career-best 1,104 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 77 catches that season.

Whether Newton -- if he remains a Panther -- can create that kind of chemistry with Ian Thomas, the next man up at the position, remains to be seen. Thomas did catch 36 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. Olsen missed seven games with a foot injury. Thomas, 6-4 and 260 pounds, has all the tools to be a top-notch tight end in any system.

Olsen said as much when Thomas was selected after South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst (first round) and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert (second round) in the draft.

“It’s hard to believe any of those guys are much better than Ian,” Olsen said at the time. "He's strong enough. He can engage at the line of scrimmage. He's smooth. He's faster than you think he is. He catches the ball well. So I think Ian has a chance to have all the traits to be a complete guy.”

Of course, the better the QB Thomas plays with the more complete he'll be.

Will that be Newton? He certainly thinks it can be.

“Everything else is pretty much in my own destiny for that,” Newton said on the Marty and McGee podcast. “I’m in the position now where I told coach that you won’t find nobody more dedicated and probably more hungry than myself. And not only to prove to him and the fans but to prove to myself that I’m still capable of playing at a high level.”

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