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You're looking at this thing all wrong if you're standing with your arms stretched to the sky and screaming to the world that there's no way Cam Newton is worth $20 million per year!!!!
The question, after all, is not whether Newton -- who signed a five-year contract extension worth $103.8 million with the Carolina Panthers, per Adam Schefter -- has earned a deal that on paper puts him in the top echelon of NFL quarterbacks. And it's not whether the Panthers should have drawn the line at, say, $12 million or $15 million annually rather than $20 million. They didn't have much choice over that number. No, the only real question the Panthers faced was whether to offer this contract or start over at a position that has never been more scarcely supplied by the traditional college feeder system.
Given those options, the Panthers jumped in much the way the Miami Dolphins did last month for Ryan Tannehill. They scrambled much like the San Francisco 49ers did with Colin Kaepernick in 2014 and the Cincinnati Bengals did with Andy Dalton last summer. The chart accompanying this post is most certainly not representative of how the NFL views its top quarterbacks, but rather the approximate cost those teams would commit to avoid the unknown.
NFL contract landscapes can be difficult to understand and justify, but the simple truth is that Newton was going to get a deal that averaged at least $20 million annually from the Panthers or nothing at all. His contract was set to expire after the 2015 season, and in those situations, negotiating terms are framed by the value of the franchise tag -- what it would cost a team to retain a player absent a long-term deal.
If the Panthers didn't offer an extension but wanted Newton as their 2016 starter, their only tool was a tag projected around $19 million. That's the framework for the annual value of a longer-term deal. To entice Newton for a multiyear commitment, the Panthers needed to go to $20 million. Why would Newton accept less if he could get $19 million, with annual raises tied to the salary cap, by playing year-to-year on franchise tags?
So again, the Panthers' true analysis was not the value of the contract but whether to offer one at all. Newton has had some spectacular moments amid shaky surrounding personnel, most notably as a multithreat player who has scored 33 rushing touchdowns, but he has never ranked higher than No. 14 in a season's accounting of Total Quarterback Rating. In the 64 games since he entered the league in 2011, 15 quarterbacks have compiled better QBRs. His 55.8 career QBR, on a scale where 50 is average and 100 is perfect, defines him as an above-average quarterback.
That résumé doesn't promise a Super Bowl championship, but the Panthers understood how scary the alternative could be. So should you. Let's imagine for a moment that the 49ers and Bengals had decided against re-signing their starters and instead bid farewell to them after the 2014 season.
Who would they have acquired to start this season and for the future? The 49ers had the No. 15 pick in the draft and the Bengals were at No. 21. Neither positions were high enough to draft Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, and there wasn't another quarterback deemed valuable enough to draft until the middle of the third round. Would you feel any better about the 49ers' or Bengals' future with Garrett Grayson, Bryce Petty, Sean Mannion or Brett Hundley on the depth chart?
And who would you rather have starting this season? Kaepernick/Dalton or the head of the free agent "class," Josh McCown? Do you think the 49ers should have dumped Kaepernick and signed Ryan Fitzpatrick? Should the Bengals have moved past Dalton and traded for Matt Cassel? Such was the 2015 veteran's market.
So if the Panthers decided against committing to a $20 million annual average for Newton, and assuming they didn't opt for the 2016 franchise tag, they would have been in the 2016 draft looking for a quarterback. There are some intriguing names in that class, from Penn State's Christian Hackenberg to Michigan State's Connor Cook to Ohio State's Cardale Jones, but early excitement about college quarterbacks has tended to fade in recent years as the draft moves closer.
Teams have been able to apply safeguards to some of these quarterback contracts to separate them from those that pay the league's true top-performing contracts. The 49ers inserted de-escalators that reduce the value of the deal if Kaepernick isn't a top performer. The Bengals provided a low guarantee ($17 million) and inserted escalators based in part on playoff participation. On the other hand, Aaron Rodgers' 2013 deal with the Green Bay Packers all but assured him every cent of his $54 million in guarantees.
This is how it works these days, and it won't change until the supply increases and improves via a framework no one can even imagine at the moment. Welcome to NFL quarterback management, circa 2015. It's a hoot.