Coach Ron Rivera said on Thursday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that it may be time to develop a quarterback who one day can step into the shoes of the 28-year-old Newton, who was the first pick of the 2011 draft.
Rivera mentioned selecting a quarterback in the April draft and re-signing veteran Derek Anderson, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Anderson, who will turn 35 in June, has been Carolina’s backup since Newton entered the NFL out of Auburn.
Gilbert was a sixth-round pick by the Rams in 2014 and bounced around three other teams before joining the Panthers last offseason. Based on Rivera’s comments, the Panthers aren’t convinced he is a long-term solution.
The answer could be in the draft, considered a strong class for quarterbacks with three potential top 10 picks and as many as six slated to go in the first two rounds.
It’s highly unlikely the Panthers would use the No. 24 overall pick on a quarterback – probably not even a second-rounder -- with other more immediate needs at wide receiver, running back and defensive end. But they have two third-round picks and three seventh-round picks, so a QB could be in the mix somewhere.
General manager Marty Hurney hasn’t had great success in drafting quarterbacks outside of Newton. He selected Jimmy Clausen in the second round and Tony Pike in the sixth in 2010; Stefan LeFors in the fourth round in 2005; and Randy Fasani in the fifth round in 2002. None was successful.
However, the quarterback the Panthers potentially draft this year won’t have the pressure to start immediately as Newton did in 2011, so he would have time to develop.
The more immediate goal is for new offensive coordinator Norv Turner to work on improving Newton, who statistically has gone backward since throwing a career-best 35 touchdown passes in 2015.
Accuracy has to be at the top of the list. Newton completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes in 2016 and 59.1 a year ago. His QBR (Total Quarterback Rating) those two seasons (48.0 and 49.6) were the worst of his career.
“The biggest thing Cam needs to understand going into this is Norv’s not here to change him," Rivera said. “What Norv is here to do is help him."
Rivera said that was the biggest thing that came out of a meeting between Turner and Newton shortly after Turner was hired to replace Mike Shula, who was fired after the season.
One of Turner’s strengths has been developing young quarterbacks such as Dallas’ Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers of the Chargers.
Rivera talked briefly to Newton around the meeting with Turner and liked what he heard.
“I asked him, ‘How are you doing?’" Rivera said. “He said, ‘Well, Coach, I’m excited and nervous.’ I said, ‘What are you nervous for?’ He said, ‘Coach, think about what he’s done for Troy Aikman and those type of guys.’
“It was kind of cool to listen to the anticipation in his voice."
The offense won’t change drastically under Turner, although passes Newton might be asked to make and routes receivers run might be slightly different.
“It’ll be a challenge for him," Rivera said of Newton. “But I know it’s something he wants."
Meanwhile, the Panthers will pick up the pace to find a future replacement for Newton and re-sign Anderson as insurance.
“Derek has been a big part of what we’ve done," Rivera said. “He’s really kind of been like having a coach in the meeting room and sidelines."