Panthers 'fully expect' Christian McCaffrey on team in 2022; Cam Newton's future unclear

Matt Rhule's first two years in Carolina haven't lived up to expectations, but that won't cost him job as of now.

Rhule told reporters he spoke with Panthers owner David Tepper on Monday and discussed the future without offering any additional pertinent details. It would seem Carolina is set to proceed forward with Rhule remaining as the team's head coach, but after firing young play-caller Joe Brady during the season, the Panthers have a void to fill at the position.

They have plenty of questions to answer elsewhere, too, starting at quarterback. Cam Newton made his return to Carolina in 2021 and could again be in the mix for Carolina in 2022. Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer told reporters Carolina is open to bringing the QB back, raving about what he learned about Newton in his first up-close experience with the former NFL MVP.

"I had this view of Cam (Newton) from the outside," Fitterer said, via The Athletic's Joe Person. "And to meet him, I've never been more impressed with a player."

Newton, though, isn't ready to return for a rebuild.

"At this point forward, I'm not coming back for no 5-12," Newton said, via ESPN. "I can tell you that now. If it's about winning, I'm with it. If it's not, I won't hitch my wagon to it.''

Newton did not win a game as a starter in Carolina as part of an offense that lacked explosive capabilities. That, of course, wasn't helped by the loss of Christian McCaffrey, who finished 2021 out of action for a second straight season. McCaffrey has played in just 10 games combined between 2020 and 2021, and it's clear Carolina is a significantly worse team without him involved.

Surprisingly, the Panthers might not be too keen on keeping McCaffrey, a player they're paying more per year than any other running back is making in the NFL. At roughly $16 million per season, McCaffrey is making premier money to spend most of his time attempting to return from injury. The Panthers aren't getting even a decent return on their investment, and they've been left empty-handed too often in the last two seasons to at least not consider moving on from McCaffrey.

Fitterer told reporters Monday the Panthers are, as stated above, a better team with McCaffrey and that the club has no intentions of trading him. Even if they did want to move him, his massive salary makes him extremely difficult to trade, as it would bring a dead cap penalty of $18.5 million to Carolina in 2022. Ruhle stated that he "fully expects" McCaffrey to be on the team next season.

It's safe to expect McCaffrey back in Carolina in 2022 with the hopes he can play more than half of the games in a season. Whoever his quarterback will be will also hope he'll have McCaffrey available. Sam Darnold learned this lesson the hard way in 2021.

Darnold's arrival via trade, subsequent performance and absence due to injury did not satisfy the expectations Carolina set for him in 2021 when it picked up his fifth-year option.

Rhule seemed to be at a loss for words Monday when asked about Darnold's future and only offered an explanation for why the Panthers picked up Darnold's fifth-year option so quickly, pointing to the relative affordability of Darnold's fifth-year salary ($18.858 million) as justification. Darnold, of course, did not play well enough to prove that decision wise, throwing the Panthers into another offseason of uncertainty under center.

Darnold's contract is guaranteed for 2022 and carries a dead cap penalty similar to that of McCaffrey's if Darnold is released. Darnold is one of two quarterbacks -- the other being P.J. Walker -- currently under contract for the Panthers as they head into the new year.

There's no simple answer to any of Carolina's issues, but what Rhule absolutely cannot afford is another losing streak similar to the length of the one the Panthers endured to close the season. Even if it didn't send Rhule to unemployment in 2021, dropping seven in a row could cost Rhule his job in 2022. In order to avoid similar disappointment, the Panthers will have to put together a productive offseason of roster and staff changes. Time is no longer a luxury for Rhule.

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