Why March is important in Panthers' evaluation of Cam Newton

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers, as ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler recently reported, hope to put quarterback Cam Newton through a workout in March to see the progress of his recovery from December surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury to his foot.

Because details of the procedure orthopedic specialist Martin O’Malley performed are unknown, we can only speculate about where the 2015 NFL MVP is with the process, according to multiple medical experts.

All we know for sure, based on what sources have said, is that the procedure was relatively minor, and a full recovery is expected. That Newton has been seen on social media working out and throwing passes that require pressure on the injured left foot is a good sign.

Newton publicly has said he “absolutely" will be back with the Panthers in 2020 for the final year of his contract, which is another positive sign.

However, nobody from the Carolina organization, including owner David Tepper, has said publicly that Newton will be on the roster this season.

“Listen. I’m not a doctor," Tepper said Tuesday. “I’ve said it a million times: Is he healthy? He’s not a doctor. There’s a lot of different things that can happen. Is he healthy? And then we can talk."

Medically, based on Newton's waiting three months to have the surgery after aggravating in Week 2 what was described initially as a mid-foot sprain, Dr. Daniel Farber of Penn Medicine in Philadelphia says a workout in March might be rushing the process.

“The best chance for the ligament to heal is if you fix it shortly after they injure it," Farber said.

“I would say something more to four to six months if the surgery was successful," Farber told ESPN. “If he were my patient ... I wouldn’t let him go full bore. To me, that’s too early.

“[O’Malley is] a really good surgeon and ... I wouldn’t question his judgment, but I’m sure there are a lot of forces pushing to go back sooner and figure out if he’s got what it takes."

What are those forces, and why is March a critical time to know where Newton is in his recovery? Let’s examine.

Free agency

The period to sign free agents begins March 18. The Panthers need to know where Newton is in his rehab to determine whether they want to let him play out the final year of his contract or move on.

If they decide to move on and save $19.1 million under the salary cap, they’ll likely be active in free agency for a veteran quarterback. There are a lot of them: Tom Brady (Patriots), Drew Brees (Saints), Teddy Bridgewater (Saints), Taysom Hill (Saints), Jameis Winston (Buccaneers), Ryan Tannehill (Titans), Marcus Mariota (Titans), Phillip Rivers (Chargers) and Dak Prescott (Cowboys).

Some will sign new deals or be franchised before free agency. However, there are enough quality options that the Panthers should have good choices. New offensive coordinator Joe Brady worked with Bridgewater and Hill for two years in New Orleans before going to LSU this past season, so they might be obvious options. Mariota, the second pick of the 2015 draft out of Oregon, might be a solid stopgap because of his experience with the run-pass option (RPO).

Because the quarterbacks on the roster behind Newton -- 2019 second-round pick Will Grier and restricted free agent Kyle Allen -- are inexperienced and took their lumps last season, the Panthers might want a veteran to bridge the gap.

Trade period

This also begins March 18. This is key on multiple levels. Say the Panthers decide to trade Newton. Teams will need evidence that he has gone through drills with no setbacks. How well he does also could have an impact on what the Panthers get in compensation. Say Newton wants to move on and not be a part of a rebuilding process under new coach Matt Rhule, regardless of what the Panthers decide. A good workout would serve him well to stir interest among other teams.

New staff

Rhule and his staff don’t have any on-the-field time with Newton, who hasn’t played since September. They need to see beyond film study what Newton can do and whether he will fit into their plans.

They could decide keeping Newton is worth the risk in a prove-it year with a $21.1 million cap hit in 2020. That’s actually somewhat of a bargain, as his 2020 salary ranks 16th among NFL quarterbacks.

They also need to consider whether keeping Newton is worth the possibility that he reinjures the foot. Although the reinjury rate after Lisfranc surgery is low, ESPN sports medicine expert Stephania Bell says you can’t ignore the force that goes through Newton’s foot, considering that he is a 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback who likes to run and throw. The uncertainty is something the new staff must weigh.

“There’s certainly a reasonable chance he can get back to his normal style of play," Farber said. “Either this is going to heal him, or this is going to nag him, and it’s going to slow him down to the point where he’s not nearly as effective."

The draft

Say the Panthers decide to keep Newton but aren’t fully committed to him past this year and aren’t sold on Grier or Allen. They could use the No. 7 pick on a quarterback. Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa could be available as the top prospects behind LSU’s Joe Burrow, who is expected to go No. 1 to Cincinnati.

The Panthers also have big needs if they keep Newton, so perhaps they could use a second- or third-round pick on a quarterback and go with a linebacker to replace retired Luke Kuechly at No. 7.

Say the Panthers trade Newton or release him and don’t sign a free agent. That increases the odds that they use the seventh pick on a quarterback.

Although it’s an unlikely scenario, the Panthers could find a way to get the top pick, as they did in 2011, when they drafted Newton, and they could reunite Burrow with Brady. Tepper already has shown that he’s a risk-taker in hiring a head coach and staff with little NFL experience.