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Minicamp analysis: Newton has come a long way in last year

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CHARLOTTE — On the final day of last year’s offseason workouts, the Carolina Panthers’ coaching staff sprung a surprise.

Few on the field knew that quarterback Cam Newton would participate in 7-on-7 drills for the first time since his ankle surgery.

The final day of this year’s offseason program was much less dramatic.

Before the Panthers were freed for the next six weeks, Newton let out an excited scream Thursday morning as he sprinted across the blazing hot turf.

Between OTAs and minicamp, there were 13 practices scheduled this month. He was about to begin his 13th.

Afterward, head coach Ron Rivera said the team’s most important player “took some real big steps” this spring. It helped that Newton was on the field instead of in a walking boot.

And while his feet were again an offseason focus, this was different.

It’s not a secret Newton struggled with accuracy and consistency his first four seasons. A 59.5 completion percentage ranks him 23rd during that time. To improve Newton’s mechanics, coaches drew up some new drills.

“He’s got such a strong arm that on some of the throws he doesn’t have to get his feet set,” Rivers said. “He turns and torques.

“That’s one thing that (quarterbacks coach) Kenny (Dorsey) and (offensive coordinator) Mike (Shula) have been working with him on, getting his footwork in the proper position and then getting set and throwing the ball. That’s something they’re going to continue to harp on.”

While his $103.8 million extension makes him one of the league’s highest-paid players at his position, it’s important to note that Newton and the Panthers admit he’s not yet one of the league’s top quarterbacks.

During an interview last week with Charlotte radio station WFNZ, Newton said he hopes to up his completion rate to 65-70 percent this year.

His career average is 59.5 and his career best was 61.7 in 2013. To make that leap, not only does Newton need to be much better, but so does his supporting cast.

It’s not easy for a guy to get his feet set when defensive linemen are in his face shortly after the snap. It’s even tougher if he doesn’t have open receivers.

With additions like left tackle Michael Oher and receivers Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn, the Panthers believe they have fixed some problems that surrounded Newton in 2014.

But it’s impossible to know for sure after just a handful of non-padded practices.

“Time will tell,” Newton said when asked if the foundation around him felt more solid. “It’s just all about trust in the offense, not only with my ability, but with the offensive line, the protection, the route running and everything else.

“It’s just all about footwork and trust in the protection.”

Another issue with Newton has been that his heart often overrules his head. The Panthers have for years begged him to “take what the defense gives you,” only to see him misfire downfield time and again.

That he appeared more willing to make shorter and safer passes throughout the last month could be a major sign of growth.

“I think part of it is learning you don’t have to make a big play every time,” Rivera said. “He wants to make the play downfield; he likes the splash play.

“With him, with his ability to stay upright; I think he tends to stick with a guy a little too long. I think he’s learning, ‘If I don’t got it right now, let me just go ahead and just give it to one of our guys, let him catch and run.'”

Dumping off to running backs Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker is a better option than chucking a ball to a covered receiver. So is a quick hitter to Corey Brown or Ginn on a crossing route.

If Newton can add patience and better decision-making to his unique skill set, it could make for a deadly combination against defenses.

“He’s a young man,” Rivera said. “He came into this league after playing only one year of major college football so he wasn’t as advanced as your Russell Wilsons or your Andrew Lucks, who played four or five seasons.

“I think his development is really headed in the right direction, and again, the big plus is we had him for all the OTAs and minicamp this year.”

Asked what he planned to do on his summer vacation, Newton answered: “Just work.”

That may mean Under Armour and Oikos appearances, but his schedule will also include a heavy dose of football.

As they did heading into last year’s training camp, Newton and a handful of receivers plan to get together for some pre-Spartanburg workouts.

But unlike last summer, he and his teammates already have a solid foundation for the upcoming season.

“This was one of our better camps,” Newton said. “For me, just to be out there and to get the reps, the things that I wasn’t able to get last year, it just felt great.”


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