NFC South: Cam Newton

Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
The NFL draft is just under a month away and representatives from the Carolina Panthers are all over the country checking out prospects.

Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl alone has tweeted pictures of stadiums at Indiana, Vanderbilt, Ball State, Wyoming, Fresno State, Southern Cal and Oregon State since March 31.

The Panthers had representatives at LSU's pro day on Wednesday to evaluate wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., among others.

I can't tell you everywhere the Panthers have been, but I compiled a list of players reportedly brought to Charlotte, N.C., for a visit, scheduled for a visit or scheduled for a private workout.

You don't see Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee tackle Ja'Wuan James or Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on the list, but that doesn't mean Carolina isn't interested and hasn't set up something.

It's no surprise there are a lot of wide receivers and offensive tackles on this list. Both are need positions. There also are a couple of athletic quarterbacks here, which is interesting with Cam Newton coming off ankle surgery and three other quarterbacks on the roster.

Most of the draft analysts predict Carolina will take an offensive tackle or wide receiver with the 28th overall pick. General manager Dave Gettleman insists they'll take the best player available.

Here's a preview of some the Panthers are looking at for the May 8-10 draft:

Wide Receivers

Brandin Cooks (5-foot-9, 189) Oregon State: This was the early popular pick by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. to wind up in Carolina. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver this past season. He set single-season Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 yards. He is nicknamed "Sonic Boom" and reminds many of Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver who recently was released.

Projected round: 1

Robert Herron (5-9, 193) Wyoming: Had a team-best nine touchdown catches this past season. Had 72 catches for 937 yards. A good athlete who can stretch the field. The Panthers need somebody to stretch the field with Ted Ginn Jr. gone.

Projected round: 3

Cody Latimer (6-2, 215) Indiana: Caught 72 passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Rising fast on a lot of draft boards. Had foot surgery in January and was unable to work out at the NFL combine in February, but ran a 4.44 40 in late March at Indiana's pro day. Excellent blocker, which Carolina likes at the position.

Projected round: 4-5

Jarvis Landry (5-11, 205) LSU: Had five 100-yard receiving games in 2013. Makes the tough catches and is a solid blocker. A team captain, so good leadership skills.

Projected round: 2-3

Marqise Lee (5-11, 192) Southern Cal: Missed three games last season with a knee injury, but is good to go. Won the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's top receiver in 2012. Had 118 catches. Can be dynamic after the catch, and the Panthers are looking for a dynamic receiver.

Projected round: 1-2

Kevin Norwood (6-2, 198) Alabama: Had seven touchdown catches in 2013. A solid route-runner with good hands. I had a prospect from another SEC team tell me Norwood will surprise and have a major impact once he gets into the NFL.

Projected round: 4-5

Offensive line

Dakota Dozier (6-3, 313) Furman: He didn't come from one of the big-time programs, but against big-time programs Florida State and Clemson this 6-4, 315-pound prospect more than held his own. A solid run-blocker, and the Panthers like to run. Had a good showing at the Shrine Bowl. Played guard, but could be a nice fit at tackle on the right side.

Projected round: 2-3

Cameron Fleming (6-4, 323) Stanford: Played on the right side for Stanford and helped the team rush for a school-record 2,904 yards in 2013. In 2011 helped protect Andrew Luck, who threw for a school-record 37 touchdowns.

Projected round: 4-5

Morgan Moses (6-6, 313) Virginia: Moved from right to left tackle for his senior season. Solid run-blocker with good first step, but has been questioned for his ability to redirect in a short area. Could sneak into the late first round.

Projected round: 2-3

Billy Turner (6-4, 315) North Dakota State: Good build but needs to carry more weight. Aggressive as a run-blocker, but inconsistent in leverage as a pass-protector. Would be a good fit for a power offense like Carolina.

Projected round: 2-3

Defensive line

Kony Ealy (6-4, 273) Missouri: First-team All-SEC selection who is big and quick off the snap, which makes him an effective pass-rusher off the edge. Still needs work as a run-stopper. There are no guarantees the Panthers sign Greg Hardy to a long-term deal, so Ealy could be insurance.

Projected round: 1-2


Kyle Fuller (5-11, 190) Virginia Tech: He missed six games last season with a sports hernia, but at 6-0 and 190 pounds he can play any kind of coverage.

Projected round: 3

Jason Verrett (5-9, 189) TCU: Slightly undersized at 5-9, but ran a 4.38 40 at the combine and is polished product. Could be a nice fit in the slot, where the Panthers are looking for an option.

Projected round: 1-2


Garrett Gilbert (6-4, 220) SMU: Had a strong pro day, completing 87 of 88 pass attempts to see his stock rise. The son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert. An athletic quarterback with Cam Newton-like size who could turn into a nice protégé for Newton.

Projected round: 7-FA

Brett Smith (6-3, 206) Wyoming: One of the more athletic quarterbacks in the draft, running the 40 in 4.51 seconds at his pro day. Had 76 career touchdown passes and 97 touchdowns overall during his college career.

Projected round: 6-7
Who do you have in the Final Four? Had to ask since I'm in Dallas, only a few miles from where the NCAA Tournament will come to a conclusion on Monday night.

I kind of like Kentucky at this point. They beat my pick, Louisville, and the rest of my tournament bracket has more X marks than one of my college calculus tests.

I know, I know. Some of you still want to talk Carolina Panthers. Some of you still want to talk free agency and the draft. I've got time for that, too.

Let's get straight to the Saturday mailbag:
Cam NewtonAP Photo/Dave MartinDonovan McNabb says there is reason to be concerned about the lack of weapons around Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is a big fan of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. He's not a big fan of Carolina's free-agency strategy that left the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner without his top four wide receivers from last season.

"Oh, I would be worried," McNabb told on Wednesday before South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney began his pro day. "First of all, I didn't have a top wide receiver until pretty much T.O. [Terrell Owens] got there.

"For him, I'm just wondering what they are doing to build around him. You lose Brandon LaFell, you lose Steve Smith, Ted Ginn's gone. All you have at this point is Greg Olsen."

Olsen is Carolina's tight end, who led the team in receptions last season with 73.

I reminded McNabb, now an analyst for Fox Sports, that0 Carolina signed Pittsburgh Steelers free agent Jerricho Cotchery. He didn't seem impressed.

"Greg Olsen," he reiterated as Newton's only legitimate weapon.

McNabb wasn't suggesting the Panthers should have gone after former Philadelphia Eagles teammate DeSean Jackson, who signed with Washington after being cut last week.

He respects the opinions of Carolina coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who were with him during parts of his career in Philly.

"But you've still got to give him some help," he said of Newton. "The quarterback is only as good as the people around him. If you don't ever want him to throw to a player that can create big plays out of the passing game, it's not going to go well."

And to Rivera's argument that the Panthers don't have to have a bona fide No. 1 receiver to be successful, McNabb simply rolled his eyes.

"I hate when teams [say] that," McNabb said. "Who are they, Bill Belichick and the Patriots now?"

McNabb's best example is himself. Let's go back to his comment that he didn't have a true No. 1 until Owens arrived in Philadelphia in 2004.

In the two seasons before Owens, McNabb threw a combined 33 touchdown passes. With Owens, he completed a career-high 64 percent of his passes for a career-high 31 touchdowns and 3,875 yards.

He also ran less that season -- 41 times for 202 yards after averaging 69.8 carries and 447.8 yards rushing in his first five seasons.

To further the argument, McNabb had two of his better seasons late in his career with Jackson in 2008 and 2009.

"[A receiver] doesn't have to be considered a No. 1, but in their offense you need a top dog," McNabb said of Carolina. "We've seen what Steve Smith can do in that offense. We've seen how LaFell has been able to get catches off of Steve Smith.

"What are they going to get them off? Jerricho Cotchery? What was Jerricho Cotchery in Pittsburgh? A No. 4? A 3?"

To be fair, Cotchery caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season. He was also the third or fourth receiver.

Regardless, McNabb is concerned about the Carolina passing game. But he's not concerned with Newton, who is out approximately four months recovering from recent surgery to tighten tendons in his left ankle.

He recalled overcoming a broken right ankle in 2002 to be stronger than ever.

"The biggest thing is they're going to benefit from making the playoffs," McNabb said. A record of "12-4 is not easy. What did they do? Win eight straight? That says a lot, and the quarterback is responsible for that."

McNabb likes where Newton is mentally, and that Newton no longer feels the urgency to do it all on the field. But will that change due to the loss of weapons from last season?

"It's just a minor setback," McNabb said of the surgery. "He'll be ready for training camp, which is good. Obviously, it's going to take some time to recover. But Rivera understands how to slowly put him in that arena, that progression to be right.

"He's still a franchise quarterback."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Many of you have asked why the Carolina Panthers delayed ankle surgery on quarterback Cam Newton until last week. My standard answer has been the team wanted to try rest and rehabilitation before putting the first pick of the 2011 draft under the knife.

What we didn't know for sure until coach Ron Rivera spoke on Monday at the NFL owners meetings is that Newton has been dealing with this injury since college, and that in the past rest and rehab has made it better.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesCam Newton had surgery last week to repair an ankle injury that has been lingering since he played at Auburn.
Until now.

So the Panthers made the right call to go forward with the surgery that tightened the ligaments in Newton's left ankle. In the long run, according to orthopedic surgeon Glenn Pfeffer, it will make Newton better.

"You have the injury, the ankle becomes loose,'' Pfeffer said. "That is almost guaranteed to cure with proper surgery. But if you keep playing on a loose ankle, like skiing on bindings that are too loose, you are prone to other injuries.

"He will do well. A great athlete like him will be better than he was before this ankle started bothering him. The success rate is way past 90 percent.''

Pfeffer said the key is not to rush Newton back. When you hear Newton could be throwing by June, that is a possibility.

According to Pfeffer, the patient typically isn't allowed to put any weight on the ankle for four to six weeks. He said the ligaments could be healed within three months, but it may take longer for the nerve-endings to completely heal.

In other words, it's not worth rushing Newton back just so he will have a few weeks to throw with a rebuilt wide receiver corps.

"It's not just the ligaments that get stretched out, it's the nerve endings that get damaged,'' Pfeffer said. "Theoretically, he could play in 10 weeks. That ligament tissue is near healed. The problem is the nerve endings, the balance, the muscle strength not coming back -- especially with his style of play. That leaves him vulnerable to injury.''

Pfeffer said people that have this kind of surgery typically wear a lace-up ankle brace for six months. But in the long run, he said Newton should be better than ever.

"For a guy who tends to hang out in the pocket and doesn't run much, that doesn't have tremendous athleticism in running style, he might not have needed surgery,'' Pfeffer said. "But somebody like Cam, with an explosive style and ballistic move, the guy becomes more vulnerable when he has a loose ligament.''

That Newton has played with the injury since he was at Auburn shows how tough and strong he is.

When the injury is healed, he should be even stronger.
Mitchell/CotcheryUSA TODAY SportsThe swap of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers bring a veteran presence to each locker room.

It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. Steelers writer Scott Brown and Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.

Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?

David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.

Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?

Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.

I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.

Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?

Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.

Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?

Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.

The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.

David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?

Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.

How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?

Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.

I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
Former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney will appear on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" on Thursday and Friday. It will be the first time he has spoken publicly since he was fired on Oct. 22, 2012, after a 1-5 start.

Hurney, in my opinion, was the fall guy that day.

It wasn't his fault the Panthers were losing. They had many of the key players -- quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross -- that helped them to a 12-4 record and NFC South title this past season.

He was the one who hired Ron Rivera, who was the NFL coach of the year this past season.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMarty Hurney was fired after a 1-5 start to the 2012 season.
His philosophy to build through the draft and not overspend in free agency is sound.

Hurney's biggest fault was signing running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson to ridiculously high contracts that has current general manager Dave Gettleman in what he might call salary cap hell.

Oh, and there was the five-year, $42.5 million deal he gave to 34-year-old Jake Delhomme after the quarterback had six turnovers in the 2008 playoff loss to Arizona.

Aside from those things, Hurney is the same person who helped build the Panthers into a team that made it to the Super Bowl in 2003, the NFC Championship Game in 2005 and back to the playoffs in 2008.

What he said the day he was fired was more truth than anybody probably was willing to admit at the time.

"I think we need somebody to step up in the locker room and take hold," Hurney told reporters at Bank of America Stadium. "I think there are people capable of that. I think we need some players to step up and say enough is enough."

That finally happened last season when Gross, with the team 1-3 heading into Minnesota, gave a speech that many of his teammates credit for the ensuing eight-game winning streak.

That Hurney, a former sportswriter, has decided to resurface now is a good thing. That he's resurfacing at a time Gettleman is under siege for releasing Smith and letting Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers get away in free agency -- not to mention failing to sign a veteran from another team -- is merely coincidence.

Hurney likes Gettleman and believes he'll do a good job.

So do I, even though I still disagree with the release of Smith.

I'm not sure what Hurney will be asked on "Insiders" (ESPN, 3:30 p.m.). I'm not sure how much he will talk about the past because he's a high-road guy. It's why players such as Johnson came to his defense when he was fired.

"Marty wasn't the reason we are losing! ... Unbelievable!" Johnson wrote on Twitter at the time.

But there will be questions, maybe a few that are uncomfortable. I'm sure you have a few. Here are five of mine:

  • When you said somebody needed to step up and say "enough is enough,'' did you believe the locker-room environment lacked the leadership to win? Who were the bad eggs?
  • Did you think at the time you signed Williams, Stewart and Johnson to big deals that it would strap the team financially this far into the future?
  • If you had to do it all over again with the exact same scenario, would you have given Delhomme such a big deal?
  • What do you think of Gettleman's decision to fire Smith?
  • Were you really fired, or did you just refuse to let others in the organization go and basically quit?

Some of these things surely will come up on the broadcast. How Hurney addresses them isn't as important as he's finally comfortable enough to talk football publicly again.

Hurney did a lot of good things for Carolina. Even Gettleman acknowledged that in his postseason wrap-up.

It's time to move on.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season. Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
The most interesting question in our NFC South roundtable that posted Thursday morning was about which quarterback we would want for the next three years. I thought it was an easy choice to pick the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, since I'm not expecting any significant drop-off from him in the next couple years.

And I thought the answer would be even more of a no-brainer when I threw it out there to my Twitter followers – since most of them are inclined to root for the Saints, needless to say.

However, I was surprised to see how much of a mixed reaction the question received – with a lot of love being shown for the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (and not much for the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan). Here's a sampling of the responses I received:
The NFL will announce the 2014 salary cap within the next few days, possibly as early as today, and the reported available cap space for the Carolina Panthers has been all over the place.

So after consulting with ESPN's top cap gurus, here's what I came up with for Carolina.

The Panthers currently are approximately $18.3 million under the cap with an early conservative estimation of a $126 million cap. If the league bumps the cap to between $132 million and $133 million as was reported last week, that'll add approximately another $6 million to the total.

So Carolina is looking at about $24 million in cap space to sign its own free agents and those from other teams.

Recent restructures to the deals of center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and linebacker Thomas Davis helped significantly. Kalil's cap number dropped from $10.4 million to $7,284,000. Stewart's dropped from $5,496,250 to $4,585,000. Davis' dropped from $5,816,666 to $3,566,666.

That's a combined savings of just under $6.3 million.

It would help even more if Carolina could get defensive end Charles Johnson's $16.4 million cap number reduced.

Clearing this room should help keep defensive end Greg Hardy, one of the team's 20 remaining free agents now that left tackle Jordan Gross has retired.

The team has until 4 p.m. ET on Monday if it decides to use the franchise tag on its sack leader. The $12 million hit would be a bargain compared to what Hardy likely will get in the open market.

Coach Ron Rivera wouldn't say on Wednesday whether the team has notified quarterback Cam Newton's representatives that they plan to activate the 2011 draft pick's fifth-year option.

The Panthers have until May 3 to make that notification. It makes little sense to do it until closer to that date because the team would be responsible for about $15 million in 2015 if Newton were to suffer a career-ending injury between now and May.

In all likelihood, Carolina will have to exercise that option eventually to give it more time to extend Newton's deal long-term. The team can continue to negotiate after exercising the extension, and it has more immediate needs to take care of in free agency.

As Rivera said on Wednesday, there are a lot of moving parts.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has to be the most nervous that left tackle Jordan Gross has retired.

For three years he's had a Pro Bowl player protecting his blind side -- the reason left tackles are such a high-priced commodity. Now he blindly awaits who that player will be.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers must find a way to replace Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.
Unless somebody unexpectedly steps up, the Panthers don't have that player on their roster. That means Newton will be relying on somebody acquired in free agency or through the draft.

Here's a breakdown of the possibilities:

Existing players: Not a lot of great options when you consider this player has to protect the franchise quarterback. Right tackle Byron Bell possibly could switch sides, but he's shaky at best. Maybe this will help explain: Pro Football Focus gave Gross a rating of 33.5 this past season; Bell got a minus-2.8. It wouldn't surprise if Bell is replaced on the right side. Free agent Bruce Campbell spent some time at left tackle, but that didn't really work out. Nate Chandler moved from the defensive line to tackle a few years ago, and finished this past season as the starting right guard due to a rash of injuries. He played well, too. It might be asking too much for him to move to tackle, although Carolina once turned tight end Matt Campbell into a pretty good left tackle during the 1990s after a lot of trips to Krispy Kreme to bulk up.

Free agency: The big question here is how much the Panthers want to spend. A top-flight left tackle is expensive, and they have a lot of other needs to fill with 21 unrestricted free agents. In all likelihood, they'll look for an up-and-comer they can get for a reasonable price regardless of what they do in the draft. It's really a pretty good year with quite a few good tackles about to hit the market in Baltimore's Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe, Kansas City's Branden Albert, St. Louis' Austin Howard, Cincinnati's Anthony Collins and Oakland's Jared Veldheer. Albert you can probably forget about based on his last contract.

The draft: The good news is this is one of the deepest drafts at tackle in years. Some might argue you can get help in the middle rounds. The bad news is you probably can't get a potentially sure-fire starter outside the first round, and the top three -- Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews -- should be gone when Carolina drafts at No. 28. They are by far the cream of the crop. That leaves candidates such as Virginia's Morgan Moses, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, North Carolina's James Hurst, Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James and Ohio State's Jack Mewhort as possibilities.

The dilemma: There are two. First, losing Gross means the Panthers almost have to find a way financially to keep defensive end Greg Hardy, whether it's with a long-term deal or the franchise tag. I believe they will. They can't afford to start over without cornerstones on the offensive and defensive line and hope to improve. Second, they still have a big need at wide receiver, particularly with Steve Smith's future somewhat up in the air. The good news is the wide receiver draft crop is just as deep if not deeper than the offensive line, so a potential starter could be had in the second round.

Could Boyd be a backup for Newton?

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
Remember on Friday when I wrote the Carolina Panthers should consider drafting a backup quarterback for Cam Newton? They are at least talking to prospects at the NFL combine.

Clemson's Tajh Boyd told reporters in Indianapolis the Panthers were one of about 20 teams he'd talked to.

He also told them he wasn't satisfied with the backup label he's been given.

History tells us that can change quickly. Seattle selected Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft as a backup to starter Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn. He quickly became the starter and has since won a Super Bowl and been selected to two Pro Bowls.

This is not to suggest if the Panthers drafted Boyd he could beat out Newton. Carolina, which considered drafting Wilson as Newton's backup, has made it clear the first pick of the 2011 draft is their franchise quarterback.

But a player such as Boyd would be a good fit behind Newton in terms of his running ability. And as I said on Friday, Newton is one of only nine quarterbacks that has started every game since 2011, so having a quality backup with similar styles could be beneficial if he gets hurt.

The question is whether a player such as Boyd will fall to the latter rounds as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has predicted. Boyd's career statistics definitely are worthy of a higher pick.

And he doesn't lack for confidence.

"I'm confident in my abilities. Game tape doesn't lie," Boyd said at the combine. "You can refer to the Senior Bowl [7-for-16, 31 yards, INT] if you want, but that doesn't take the place of three years''

In three years, Boyd was 32-8 at Clemson.

"Ultimately, man, I just feel like I win games,'' Boyd said.

. . . While we're on the subject of quarterbacks, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has sought out Newton for advice.

"Being another Heisman Trophy winner I got a chance to really reach out to him probably in the spring, this summer, sometime through there,'' he told reporters in Indianapolis. "I probably had a two-hour conversation just getting to talk about everything, just about the people he has around him, what has made him so successful.

"Very eager to listen to him. Very fun-loving, fun-natured guy. I’m really thankful to be able to pick up the phone and call him if I ever did need anything.'

Combine preview: Carolina Panthers

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needed less than 90 seconds to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the 2013 draft.

Probably half of that time was spent in stunned amazement that the 6-foot-2, 315-pound giant he had rated near the top of his draft board still was available at a position the team considered a top priority.

Don't expect it to be that easy this year.

The Panthers head to the NFL scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis with three huge needs -- wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback. It's more unlikely that a star such as Lotulelei will fall to them this year since their first pick isn't until No. 28 after a 12-4 season.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers need to add a playmaker like Brandin Cooks who has the potential to eventually replace Steve Smith.
They'll have to be even more thorough with their homework at the combine and individual workouts to find players to fill major gaps.

And they were pretty thorough last season, making sure the heart condition that forced Lotulelei to pull out of last year's combine was not serious.

They may need to find the next Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who developed into the team's sack leader (15) and a Pro Bowl selection this past season -- and into a player who could be lost to free agency if Carolina can't reach a new deal or use the franchise tag on him.

The good news is Gettleman & Co. appear pretty good at evaluating talent. Three of their first four picks -- Lotulelei, defensive tackle Kawann Short (second) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (fifth) -- were huge successes as rookies.

Sixth-rounder Kenjon Barner never got to show what he could do because of a logjam at running back and fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila spent the year on injured reserve.

"Of the three guys we got on the field, we're real pleased with,'' Gettleman said in his season review.

Which brings us to the combine, where the Panthers will be looking for players who can make similar contributions. Here's a closer look at their top three needs and why:

Wide receiver: This is where many of the draft analysts have the Panthers focused, and with good reason. No. 1 receiver Steve Smith is heading into his 14th season and wideouts Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are unsigned in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. In all likelihood, the Panthers will re-sign one or two of their free agents. Ginn makes the most sense because he's a proven threat as a return specialist as well as a deep threat. But the Panthers need a solid No. 2 receiver who could develop into a No. 1 when Smith retires. LaFell hasn't done that. This is one of the deepest receiver classes in years, so this an attractive spot regardless of whether it's the first or second round.

Possible at No. 28: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, LSU's Jarvis Landry, UCLA's Shaq Evans.

Offensive tackle: Gettleman loves to talk about the "hog mollies," his term for the men in the trenches. He also loves drafting them, as we saw last season when the Panthers went one-two with defensive tackles. He believes in building a team from the inside out, which is why I believe this is where the Panthers will go in the first round if the right player is there. Left tackle Jordan Gross is either going to return for his 12th season or retire. Either way, he's not getting younger and the Panthers need to find a future replacement for him. Ideally, they could find a starter at left tackle in the draft and move Gross to right tackle. Or groom a draft pick at right tackle as they did Gross for a year in 2003. The chances of finding a starter here is much greater in the first round.

Possible at No. 28: Virginia's Morgan Moses, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort.

Cornerback: As I noted after the Super Bowl, the biggest difference between Carolina and Seattle was the secondary. The Seahawks simply were bigger and better. Carolina must upgrade this position even if it re-signs starter Captain Munnerlyn. While I believe this is third among priorities for a first-round pick, if one of the top three corners (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Lamarcus Joyner, according to Scouts Inc.) were to fall to 28 he would have to get serious consideration. It's definitely a position that should get attention in the top three rounds -- and at the combine.

Possible at No. 28: Florida's Marcus Roberson, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Other needs: Don't be surprised to see Carolina go after a tight end to give quarterback Cam Newton another option there after Greg Olsen, a linebacker and a backup quarterback in the late rounds. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could be an intriguing pick if he falls to the fifth round as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has projected. He has many of the same qualities Newton has as a running quarterback and could learn a lot from Newton as he makes the transition into the NFL. Tight end actually was under consideration last year when Lotulelei became available.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will get his money.

No need to panic.

No reason to think that it's a red-flag warning because the Panthers haven't initiated talks in the weeks since the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft became eligible to renegotiate.

The Panthers, sources said, haven't really begun negotiations on any contracts.

They are in the same boat as other teams financially strapped under the salary cap. There's not much they can do until the league officially sets the cap for 2014 in the next week or two.

Until then, it's hard to promise Newton or any of the team's 21 unrestricted free agents anything.

One of general manager Dave Gettleman's strengths is patience. He showed it last February when he didn't clean house with the coaching or scouting staff after replacing Marty Hurney. Gettleman showed it when he didn't replace head coach Ron Rivera when the Panthers were 0-2 or 1-3.

He showed it when he methodically restructured contracts to take the Panthers from more than $16 million over the salary cap to more than $15 million under it -- or more, depending on what the final cap number is, likely between $126 million and $128 million.

According to ESPN's Roster Management System, with a $6 million carryover, the Panthers could have as much as $28 million to play with based on a $128 million cap.

Regardless, when Gettleman said after the season he was going to take time to evaluate every player for the course of a 17-week season, he meant it. That he hasn't contacted free agents such as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn doesn't mean he's not interested.

It means the evaluation isn't over and -- again -- until there's a hard cap number there's no need to make empty promises.

[+] EnlargeNewton
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton still has a year remaining on his rookie contract, plus the team holds a fifth-year option.
Newton's situation is different. He has a year left on his original deal and the team still has the choice of picking up a fifth-year option that would extend it to two years.

Newton also doesn't need much evaluation. He proved his worth the past three seasons, particularly this past season in guiding Carolina to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.

Gettleman and Rivera acknowledged that by saying the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was their franchise quarterback. They understand their quarterback is now on a path to becoming one of the league's elite players.

So Newton will get paid, whether that's with an extension this year or next.

Despite how well Munnerlyn played in 2013, the Panthers are looking to upgrade the secondary. They aren't looking to upgrade at quarterback, except maybe at the backup position with a draft pick or free agent.

So it's understandable if Munnerlyn is a little on edge that the Panthers haven't opened talks with his agent, although sources said that is expected to happen for him and others at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that begins Wednesday.

But when you look around the league, not a lot of teams have re-signed their own free agents at this point.

Defensive end Greg Hardy's situation is different, too. He proved his worth with a team-best 15 sacks and a trip to the Pro Bowl. For him, it's a question of whether the Panthers can afford a new deal or the franchise tag that would cost them about $12 million -- or a huge hunk of their cap room.

This all figures into what the Panthers will do with Newton. Ideally, they'd like to get a new deal this year.

But if that hurts improving the team's chances of getting back to the playoffs, it's doubtful Newton would want that. The one thing he learned this past season is that the perception of a player's capabilities is much better when he's on a winning team.

Newton's contract probably wouldn't be a topic now if he wasn't asked Monday on the "Dan Patrick Show" if he planned to pressure Carolina into an extension with a holdout.

Not that he'd ever suggested a holdout was possible.

Newton, to his credit, handled the question with the poise that allowed him to generate last-minute, fourth-quarter comebacks against Miami, New England and New Orleans.

He said his priority was on taking his performance to the "marquee" level Carolina needs to avoid a letdown and take the next step in the playoffs.

He talked about being a leader, and how a holdout would send the wrong message to the rest of the team.

"I'm not worried about contract discussions right now," Newton said on the show. "My main focus is just becoming the better player I can become."

Newton shouldn't be worried. He's going to get his money.

Cam Newton is now an elite quarterback

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
Cam Newton is now an elite quarterback.

Amazing what a 12-4 regular-season record and trip to the playoffs will do for perception.

Before the 2013 season, an analysis of the NFL's young star quarterbacks with the brightest future ranked the Carolina Panthers' third-year player fifth behind Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesIn his third season with Carolina, QB Cam Newton threw for 3,379 yards and 24 touchdowns to lead the Panthers to the NFC divisional playoffs.
This week, former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo ranked Newton tied for fifth among what he called the league's elite for all NFL quarterbacks.

Using his nine-point scale, Angelo came up with his 2013 upper class in Denver's Peyton Manning (9.0), New England's Tom Brady (8.9), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (8.8), Newton (8.7), New Orleans' Drew Brees (8.7), San Diego's Philip Rivers (8.6) and Indy's Luck (8.5).

Wilson, who led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl XLVIII win against Denver, was in the next group with a rating of 8.4. So was Kaepernick (8.4), whose 49ers defeated Carolina in the NFC playoffs.

Griffin? He ranked 21st in the "still a work in progress category" at 6.9.

I argued before the season that Newton was undervalued in the ranking because he played on losing teams and didn't have a supporting cast as strong as the others.

The addition of a few key pieces, particularly on defense, turned the Panthers into a winning team as Newton's overall statistics actually went down -- except for passing touchdowns, of which he had a career-best 24.

Yet the perception was Newton had drastically changed as a player and a person, when, in reality, the biggest change was the win-loss record.

"Cam didn't change who he is as a person," coach Ron Rivera told me recently. "He just developed. He just grew. He got more experience as a player. That's what you're starting to see. Who he is or what he is doesn't change one bit. Him developing and growing older and wiser as a football player is the biggest thing that's changed.

"But he is the same person. He hates to lose … doesn't want to lose. He is going to work as hard as anybody you've ever seen. We look at him differently, and people look at him differently because we did win."

That was the message Newton preached over and over during media and sponsor-driven stops in New York City the week before the Super Bowl. He insisted he basically was the same person who was part of 6-10 and 7-9 records in his first two seasons.

Did he play smarter? Yes. Did he let the game come to him more instead of forcing issues? Yes. Did he work to overcome the public image that he is aloof? Yes.

Would all of that have gone unnoticed had the Panthers continued to lose? Yes.

"Last year, going to the Super Bowl, you didn't see a lot of commercials or shots with Cam moving around and doing things," Rivera said. "And [this year] he was one of the guys that was always featured.

"Yeah, he probably did get looked at differently by the league, but, let's be honest: It is about winning and being relevant."

Newton certainly caught Angelo's attention. Here's what the long-time NFL executive said about him on "A special talent with flaws. He took a good team and had them playing consistently well. They didn't back into being divisional champs, they took it and he led the charge. Needs to continue to grow his football IQ. More work in the classroom is the key to is continued development."

No, the key is to continue to win.

Perception is everything.