Carolina Panthers: Better or worse at quarterback in 2020?

The Carolina Panthers will have an almost entirely different quarterback room in 2020 after the exits of Newton and Allen.

Coming into 2019, the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton had big expectations. Less than a year earlier Newton was playing the best football of his career and had the Panthers at 6-2 and in the thick of the Super Bowl conversation. In a brutal Thursday night game against Pittsburgh though, Newton re-injured his throwing shoulder, which caused Carolina’s season to spiral out of control before he was eventually shut down for the final two games of the 2018 season.

Shortly after he opted for arthroscopic surgery in January of 2019 in hopes of making a healthy return for the 2019 campaign. In his preseason debut though, he suffered what was initially diagnosed as a left foot sprain, and returned in time for the first two games of the regular season. In those two games he struggled, completing just 56% of his passes with an interception and no touchdowns. He also rushed for negative yardage on only five carries before it was discovered that he had been playing with a Lisfranc injury–much more serious than a simple sprain.

The former MVP was ruled out for the Week Three matchup in Arizona, thus giving way to Kyle Allen for his first taste of extended NFL action. In 13 games (with 12 starts), Allen would lead the Panthers to a 5-7 record, accounting for over 3,300 passing yards and 19 total touchdowns. Unfortunately though, Allen’s struggles with turnovers cost Carolina several games down the stretch. He was picked off 16 times in his final nine games, and lost seven fumbles on the year. He was eventually replaced by rookie Will Grier, and was traded to the Redskins this past month. Like Allen, Grier faced his own issues with turnovers. In two games Grier completed just 54% of his passes for 228 yards and four interceptions. He failed to account for a single touchdown.

As a result of the quarterback struggles in 2019, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal.

For the first time since 2010, Carolina’s Week One starter at quarterback will be someone other than Newton. Since being taken with the first pick in the 2011 draft, Newton was firmly entrenched as the team’s franchise quarterback up until his injury this past season. Even after the hiring of new head coach Matt Rhule there appeared a solid indication that Newton would be back with Carolina in 2020. Shortly after the beginning of free agency though, the team’s plans changed when they handed former Saints and Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a three-year, $63 million deal. The team would go on to release Newton at the end of March and traded Allen to Washington shortly after.

Bridgewater, 27, was a first-round pick of the Vikings in 2014, and nearly led Minnesota to a playoff victory in 2015 had it not been for the infamous Blair Walsh missed field goal. In August of 2016 though Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic left knee injury that nearly required amputation. He would miss nearly all of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, but impressed so much in the 2018 preseason with the Jets that the Saints gave up a second-round pick in order to make him Drew Brees’ backup. In two years with New Orleans Bridgewater appeared in 14 games, making six starts, passing for 1,502 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. In his career Bridgewater is 22-12 as a starter and is a former Pro Bowler.

Despite not being as versatile as Newton, Bridgewater is ultra-conservative with the football and is as consistent as they come.

Many Panthers fans were understandably upset at the organization for the poor handling of the Newton situation, but it’s important now to realize that Bridgewater is a good quarterback himself. In five games as the Saints’ starter in 2019, he posted a perfect 5-0 record while completing 70% of his passes for 1,205 yards and nine touchdowns. In those starts he threw just two interceptions on 165 attempts, and didn’t lose a single fumble. With that being said, there’s no question that Bridgewater will take care of the football for Carolina in 2020 and beyond.

It’s also worth noting that Bridgewater is a perfect fit with Carolina’s offensive weapons. He gets the ball out of his hands extremely quickly, which in turn allows the team’s playmakers to make plays in space. Wide receivers DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson all excel in picking up yards after the catch, so a quarterback of Bridgewater’s style could be the desirable passer for the Panthers’ shifty receivers. It’s also worth noting that Saints running back Alvin Kamara thrived with Bridgewater on the field in 2019, and Christian McCaffrey is a similar (and even better) player. It hurts to see Newton go, but a smart, quick decision-making quarterback could be exactly what the Panthers’ offense needs to reach its full potential.

The only concern at quarterback for the Panthers at this point should be the backup role.

While Bridgewater is a good player when he’s on the field, he has played just one 16-game season since entering the league, and that came before the knee injury. He has been primarily a backup since then, so it remains to be seen how well the knee will hold up over a full season. That being said, the backup quarterback role could be a position of concern. The only other two signal-callers on the current roster are Grier and former Colt and XFL star PJ Walker. Grier was third on the depth chart to open the 2019 season, but spent most of the year as the primary backup to Allen. Carolina used a third-round pick on him in last year’s draft, and many believe he still has potential despite his rocky start.

Walker on the other hand is the more intriguing option. He bounced on and off of the Colts’ practice squad from 2017-2019, and spent this spring dominating the upstart XFL. In five games with the Houston Roughnecks Walker completed 65% of his passes for 1,338 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to being named the league’s MVP. He was a highlight machine with the Roughnecks and was easily the league’s biggest star. His familiarity with Rhule, who coached him at Temple, could be enough to give him the upper hand over Grier. Nonetheless, the backup job will certainly be worth keeping an eye on throughout training camp and the preseason (if there is one), and could be critical to the team’s performance in 2020.

If nothing else, the Panthers figure to have consistency at the position in 2020 for the first time in what seems like years.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to determine if the Panthers will be “better” with Bridgewater at quarterback until he actually plays. It’s probably safe to assume that he isn’t as “dangerous” as Newton, but it’s also fair to assume that he will take better care of the football and very well may be more effective with his arm. They are two completely different players with completely different skill-sets. The main thing the Panthers need from Bridgewater is for him to stay on the field. Newton’s injuries killed the team over the past two seasons, and the team was right to be concerned over his long-term health.

With that being said, if Bridgewater can stay healthy, he’s a perfect fit in Carolina’s offense. Coming from a die hard Cam fan, there’s no real debating that Bridgewater is the more talented passer. As a result, the presence of Bridgewater could be exactly what Moore and company need to reach their full potential, which, talent-wise aside, may make him the better team fit. There’s no definitive way of knowing the team’s quarterback plans beyond 2020, so the upcoming year is a major “prove-it” year for the 27-year-old.

If he plays well, it isn’t crazy to think that he could earn another contract with the Panthers. If he doesn’t, he’ll still be a useful bridge quarterback for whoever comes in next. One more time I’ll say this: the key to the position in 2020 will be consistency. Unfortunately Newton hasn’t showed it over the past few years, but now that Bridgewater is in town, it’s time for Panthers fans to support him just the same.

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