Cam Newton's future: Can he become a top-five QB by the end of this contract?

Four years into his NFL career, Cam Newton has been rewarded handsomely by the Panthers, as the two sides have agreed on an extension that will keep the 26-year-old in Carolina through 2020 and pay him like an elite quarterback. To this point in his tenure, however, he hasn't exactly performed like one, with flashes of great promise mixing with inconsistent play. Which raises the question: By the time Newton's extension expires, will he be regarded as a top-five quarterback?

Cam Newton absolutely will be viewed as one of the NFL's top-five quarterbacks by then. The 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year has lived up to expectations for a former No. 1 overall pick. Newton has not only led the Panthers to back-to-back division titles in the NFC South, but he has also blossomed into a dangerous multi-purpose threat on the perimeter. Newton, of course, is known for his exceptional rushing prowess (33 career ground scores in four seasons), but he also has been effective as a passer, based on his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 82:54.

Granted, Newton is a bit of a streaky passer from the pocket, but the lack of pass protection and explosive weapons on the outside makes it hard to fully evaluate his skills as a franchise player. Now that team owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Dave Gettleman have committed big money to their young signal-caller, the Panthers surely also will make a better commitment to surrounding him with a supporting cast that will allow him to put his complete game on display. Based on his natural talent and explosive athleticism, Newton has the potential to develop into a league MVP during this deal. Can he become a top-five quarterback? Absolutely. The fact that he isn't considered one at the moment is an indictment of the Panthers' previous management more than anything. Cam Newton has superstar talent, size and speed -- and this might be the first year he has a reputable-to-above-average receiving corps, assuming rookie Devin Funchess is as good as I think he'll be.

Everyone needs help, and Newton is no different. If he's provided that help, he might be scary good. From now to 2020 is an eternity in the NFL -- but I would say no, based on Cam Newton's career so far. His ability to make plays with his feet could lead to injuries, given the increased exposure to hits that comes with running the ball. Newton has made some big-time throws because of his arm strength, but he's still inconsistent with regard to accuracy, mechanics and decision-making.

His contract extension might make headlines, but we should remember that the size of a quarterback's salary sometimes has more to do with the need to keep him from hitting free agency or to avoid having to use the franchise tag on him than it does with ability. Cam will be considered a top-five quarterback in 2020 because the Panthers will win, and because the quarterback position will continue to evolve. I'll admit Newton hasn't developed as fast as even his biggest supporters would like; I had him ranked as my No. 8 quarterback in 2013, but he fell to 14th for his play in an uneven 2014 season. He is perhaps the streakiest quarterback in all of football, and that's not what teams are looking for.

But Newton's game-management ability is improving, and his physical skills are still off the charts. More importantly: Which quarterbacks are going to pass him? Many of today's top QBs will be retired by 2020. Colleges are producing a different style of quarterback, and Cam is at the front of the trend. The league will adjust to the talent it's getting, not the other way around. Perhaps Cam can find a coach not named Mike Shula who knows what to do with him. I think an argument can be made that Newton belongs in the top five right now, based on ability. He might not be at the level of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady just yet, but he's right there with the next tier of signal-callers, a hard-to-order group that includes Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Tony Romo. And while he might not exactly be a no-doubt lock to slot in above that top-five line at this point, if I had to predict who will be considered the Rodgers and Brady of the NFL three years from now, I'd pick Newton and Luck.

In fact, I think Newton stacks up well with Rodgers in almost every important facet of the game, aside from experience. Newton is smart and he has character. Plus, he has great athletic ability -- he's more athletic than Rodgers. Rodgers is, of course, more accurate, but then, few could hold a candle to Rodgers in that area. Remember, too, that Rodgers has a stellar receiving corps to work with, one that is much better than anything Newton has had with the Panthers. If Newton were dropped onto the Packers' roster, I think he could be almost as successful as Rodgers. The Packers quarterback's edge in experience gives him better command of the game. But with some time and a better supporting cast, the hard-working Newton should grow into a player of Rodgers' caliber, capable even of completing passes at a similar rate.

I have a relationship with Newton, and I'm proud of him. This kid has been maligned and criticized, but I think most of his perceived problems -- throws too hard, lacks accuracy -- are more in the public's imagination than anything. After all, it's tough to be accurate when you don't have good receivers to throw to. If he were to get his own version of Jordy Nelson or Rob Gronkowski or his own version of the offensive line in Green Bay, there's no limit to what he could do.

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