Cam Newton has become a prime Bengals mock draft pick in recent weeks, with his stock rising steadily as analysts begin to realize that he has the most upside among a deep but unspectacular group of quarterback prospects.

With the Bengals slated to pick fourth overall, Newton would seem to make sense if the Panthers, Broncos and Bills passed on the Heisman Trophy winner, regardless of what happens to Carson Palmer.

Palmer isn’t the player he used to be and, at 31, he appears to be regressing. Making matters worse, he’s reportedly looking to escape town. Here’s what No. 9 told a big-mouthed friend, according to Dennis Janson of WCPO-TV in Cincy:

“I will never set foot in Paul Brown Stadium again,” is how he put it to one confidant.

He continued, “I have $80 million in the bank. I don’t have to play football for money. I’ll play it for the love of the game but that would have to be elsewhere. I’m prepared to live my life.”

Makes sense (assuming Palmer is at least willing to step foot in Paul Brown Stadium as a member of an opposing team). The Bengals are about to let Palmer’s top two receivers leave, the defence is still mediocre and the front office still refuses to invest in talent where it’s needed (see: the coaching staff). Palmer realizes that the team isn’t getting any better, and it looks as though he’s pushing to join a winner before it’s too late.

He’d have to prove, though, that is isn’t already too late. Palmer struggled for the vast majority of the 2010 season. He’s far too inconsistent for a veteran starter, especially with a decent offensive line and a solid group of receivers, both young and old. There were six games this year in which Palmer’s passer rating was lower than 65.0. That’s not cool.

As Janson mentioned in the above report, Peter King of Sports Illustrated claimed Monday that the Bengals were willing to listen to offers for the former top pick. And after eight years in Cincinnati, Palmer was apparently trying to sell his house this offseason.

With only Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour listed behind Palmer on the current depth chart, and with labour strife threatening to kill free agency this year, the Bengals would be smart to draft a quarterback. The team met with Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, but this is also a notoriously cheap franchise that might not want to cough up the guaranteed cash usually required for quarterbacks taken in the top 10.

Yes, the new collective bargaining agreement could and should contain a rookie wage scale to ease that pain, but that’s no guarantee. In 2003, Palmer was considered to be close to a lock. He had a massively bright future. And even he has been somewhat disappointing in Cincinnati. Considering what also happened with Akili Smith in 1999, I doubt the Bengals spend another top-five selection on a quarterback. I can see them taking the top defensive player available — someone who can hit quarterbacks often — and looking for a quarterback in Round 2.

A lot will likely change between now and late April, and it’s entirely possible that a Newton or a Gabbert slide into the second round. Otherwise, I’m betting the Bengals secure a less sexy signal caller such as Jake Locker, Colin Kaepernick or Ryan Mallett.

Either way, it looks as though Palmer’s gone.