Panthers are on the clock to extend Newton

Carolina has until May to exercise a team option on QB Cam Newton, who's had an outstanding 2013. Jeff Siner/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't hesitate to call Cam Newton his franchise quarterback, a cornerstone to build his offense around.

The next step is to pay him like it.

Per the new collective bargaining agreement, the clock is ticking on the Panthers to either exercise a fifth-year option on the first pick of the 2011 draft or negotiate a new long-term deal with him.

To do so, the team must give written notice to the player after the final regular-season game of the player's third season -- which for Newton was Sunday's 21-20 victory at Atlanta -- and before May 3 before his fourth season.

Should the Panthers choose to exercise the option, which would be similar to a franchise tag, Newton would be entitled to the average salary of the top 10 quarterbacks in 2013. That would be in the neighborhood of $17.3 million.

Newton is in the third year of a four-year, $22 million deal.

Odds are the Panthers will negotiate a deal that would lock Newton down for much longer, although technically they could use the option year and the franchise tag to lock him down for six years.

Regardless, Newton will get a hefty raise.

But that, as Newton recently said, is "the last thing on my mind."

His focus is on helping the Panthers (12-4), seeded second in the NFC, prepare for a Jan. 12 home playoff game against Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco.

That he has made the playoffs for the first time isn't enough.

“It’s worth a hill of beans if you can’t win the ones that you have to,” Newton said last week. "Up until this point and moving forward, you have to win each and every one of them. We’re not celebrating prematurely that we’re in the playoffs. Yeah, we’re excited just like every other team is excited about being in the playoffs, but we’re not going to get too drunk off the high.”

That Newton has played a major role in helping Carolina make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 only strengthens his case for being financially rewarded.

One of his biggest criticisms before this season was his record, 13-19. It was a factor in why he was rated below Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Washington's Robert Griffin III and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick by a panel of 12 coaches, scouts and front-office personnel before the season.

Even Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman pointed to the record when The Charlotte Observer asked during training camp whether Newton was the quarterback to build around.

"Yes, he is," Gettleman said. "But now it's time to win."

Newton has done that. Only Wilson of the 13-3 Seahawks won more games this season among the four Newton was compared with in the ESPN poll. In the last 12 games, Newton's 11-1 record was the best of any quarterback in the league.

Statistically, Newton has completed a career-best 61.7 percent of his passes for a career-best 24 touchdowns and a career-best 88.8 passer rating.

His overall quarterback rating of 56.2 ranks 14th in the NFL, just behind No. 13 Wilson at 58.9.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula says Newton is "the most favorite guy I've ever coached."

And I haven't even mentioned what Newton does with his legs, which might be his most valuable asset, as he displayed with 72 yards on 12 carries Sunday.

Gettleman hasn't spoken publicly to reporters about Newton since training camp. He hasn't spoken publicly about the contract status of any players in the past few months.

As soon-to-be free-agent left tackle Jordan Gross recently told me, this new regime doesn't appear to deal with contacts during the season.

But Gettleman has made enough moves and restructured enough contracts to take the Panthers from more than $16 million over the salary cap to more than $17 million under it since taking over in January.

It would make sense if part of that was to be in position to renegotiate with Newton.

The clock is ticking.