NFC South: Cam Newton
- The scariest moment of camp for the Panthers came Monday morning when rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin complained of soreness in his left knee after bumping it on the knee of a teammate the day before. He was sent to Charlotte, North Carolina, for an MRI, which revealed a bone bruise but no structural damage. Benjamin will miss only a few days, possibly a week, recovering, which is good news for quarterback Cam Newton. They've developed a lot of chemistry and it's obvious Newton looks for the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin early and often in practice. Without Benjamin, 31-year-old Jerricho Cotchery stepped up to the No. 1 spot and everyone else adjusted forward. Nothing against Cotchery, but he doesn't have the speed or the size to make the catches Benjamin does. The sooner Benjamin gets back the better because he'll need all the reps he can get before his first season.
- Coach Ron Rivera liked the tempo of Monday morning's practice so much that he extended a no-huddle drill by three series. The energy definitely was better than on Sunday. Players began practice by yelling "energy'' and "fresh legs'' in individual huddles. They seemed to run faster between drills. It was slightly cooler in the morning than it had been the previous afternoon when the temperature was in the lows 90s and there was a breeze, so that may have had something to do with it. Rivera also noted the media had more energy, but that had more to do with being able to stand under the shade trees on the far side of the field. Coach declined our request for chairs.
- Charles Godfrey's transition from safety to cornerback has been slow. He continues to have what Rivera calls "dirty eyes,'' peaking into the backfield and getting beat deep on plays. At this point it's hard to see him beating out Antoine Cason or Melvin White for one of the every-down corner jobs. But it's early, and Rivera likes the speed and physicality Godfrey has shown.
- With backup cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Josh Norman nursing minor injuries, undrafted rookie Carrington Byndom is getting a few more snaps. He's made the most of it, intercepting a pass in each of the past two practices. In case you aren't familiar with Byndom, he is 6-foot and 180 pounds. He didn't have an interception last season at Texas, but was second on the team in solo tackles. He's a long shot to make the team, but so was White last season and he wound up the starter.
- Breaking: Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, finally has cable television at his home in Charlotte. As for his POY trophy, it remains somewhere at his parent's home in Cincinnati. And he doesn't have cable at training camp. He doesn't even have a TV. He is all about football and sleep, leaning heavy on football.
They need him.
One thing was clear as quarterback Cam Newton talked about limiting his runs in camp as he continues to work the surgically-repaired left ankle back into shape.
As much as I've insisted the offense has a chance to be better than a year ago despite the loss of the top four wide receivers from a season ago -- including the team's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith -- it's a fragile situation.
Benjamin and Newton are the two biggest pieces the Panthers can't afford to break.
Fortunately for Carolina, Benjamin's injury suffered during a collision with a teammate on Sunday isn't anything that will keep him out long term. It's fortunate because at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds the 28th pick of the draft has looked liked anything but a rookie during offseason workouts and camp.
He has clearly defined himself as the No. 1 receiver and a target that Newton doesn't hesitate to throw to despite his inexperience. He has a chance to be the next Calvin Johnson sooner rather than later. He has looked so good that Smith seems like a distant memory.
Newton, who has a tendency to sail passes high at times, doesn't have to be perfect when throwing to Benjamin. The former Florida State standout showed that during Sunday's practice when he caught a couple of passes on which his height and acrobatic athletic ability came in handy.
When I asked Newton about having that luxury, he said, "For Kelvin, man, he's a playmaker."
Then he paused and said, "I see where you're trying to go, but I'm not going to go there."
Newton doesn't want to single any player out, particularly a rookie. He wants to spread his love to all his receivers, tight ends and weapons in general. It's a sign of leadership.
Newton already is showing more signs of being a leader this camp than a year ago, when he led Carolina to a 12-4 season.
The ankle has slowed him a bit. He's not running nearly as much in practice as he would have in the past, by design. The Panthers don't need him to run now. They're being smart.
They will need him to run once the season begins, and he understands that even though it's not easy holding back.
"The big picture is trying to get back 100 percent," Newton said. "The competitive side always tells a person you can go, you can go. The big picture is trying to be 100 percent by Week 1.
"I just know I'm putting myself in a position when it's time for my number to be called in the game, I will be ready to go."
So Newton is willing to step back as a runner, but not as a leader. Nobody has been more active in pumping up teammates. His longest runs of camp have come while rushing to the player who just made a big play for a flying hip bump, as he did after fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard had a good scramble on Sunday.
When asked about defensive end Greg Hardy, who said he hated that his legal issue on domestic violence has been a distraction to the team, Newton addressed it head on but with tact.
"I can say this," he said. "As a team, we're getting closer. The talks that we need to have, the conversations we need to have, have been great. We don't need to have this conversation about Greg Hardy. I will refuse to have a conversation about Greg.
"Greg understands. He's a grown man. I don't need to remind everybody how important he means to this team."
Newton is more important. The drop-off from him to backup Derek Anderson -- as well as he has been throwing -- is as big as the one between Benjamin and the rest of the receivers.
The Panthers need them to be a dangerous and productive combination to return to the playoffs and become the first in team history to record consecutive winning seasons. If they click, that will open things up for the rest of the offense.
It's a fragile situation.
That was clear on Monday.
I mention this because it was Newton's first pass in team drills since he underwent surgery in March to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.
But don't read too much into that as the Carolina Panthers held their first practice of training camp on Friday night with Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium.
While Newton looked rusty at times, that was to be expected after the long layoff. He also had good moments, like connecting with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin for a deep pass.
The only potentially scary moment came when Newton walked away with a slight limp after stepping into a throw that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery dropped. Trainer Ryan Vermillion quickly checked him out and gave him clearance to return.
"Just precautionary,'' Newton said. "I can't stress enough that I'm not 100 percent yet. I'm treating it day in and day out.''
Coach Ron Rivera isn't concerned at all that Newton will be 100 percent when the season begins. He's putting no limits on the first pick of the 2011 draft as camp moves to Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. , on Saturday.
"He's working through it,'' Rivera said. "This is all a part of his rehab, to get out and work it now. The doctor feels very confident about his ankle. Now it's just a matter of getting in shape and getting that ankle stronger.
"I'm not concerned at all. Based on what I'm being told and from what I'm seeing, I'm excited about it.''
Newton was excited just to be practicing full after being limited for most of offseason workouts. He fed off the energy of the estimated 36,315 fans.
During special team drills, Newton took time in the opposite end zone getting the fans revved up. He took a bow at the end of the drill and sprinted to midfield, drawing another cheer.
When wide receiver Brenton Bersin caught a deep sideline pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson, Newton sprinted more than 40 yards to the end zone to congratulate him.
"They hold us accountable and we have to put a product on the field so the whole Carolinas can be happy about it,'' Newton said.
One of the biggest questions leading into camp was whether Newton would be rusty with a new set of receivers after Steve Smith was cut and the next three were lost in free agency. Overall, Rivera was pleased.
"He was a little rusty,'' the fourth-year coach said of Newton. "He struggled in terms of his quarterback-to-running back exchange on one play in particular. But it's the first time he's had to work on those techniques.
"He made some nice throws. I was pleased with the wide receivers. I liked what I saw from that bunch.''
Newton's pass to Benjamin was particularly impressive. It also was somewhat symbolic in that the former Florida State standout is the heir apparent to the No. 1 receiver position left open by Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who is with Baltimore.
Newton and his new receivers have done their best to minimize Smith's absence, working together on their own during the past few weeks before the team reported to make up for time lost while the quarterback rehabbed.
Newton said he thought little about the ankle during the two-hour practice.
"For the most part I was not,'' he said. "But you're reminded after a tweak. It's just timing.''
The good news, Newton has plenty of time to recapture that.
Instead of reporting to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as they have since the team was formed in 1995, the Panthers will report to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The schedule was adjusted because Liverpool FC will play AC Milan at Carolina's newly-renovated stadium on August 2 as part of the Guinness International Champions Cup.
So instead of holding Fan Fest at the stadium on the second Saturday of camp as has been tradition, the Panthers moved that event to Friday night.
Players will hold a two-hour practice from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session, a performance by the group Voltage Brothers, and fireworks.
The teams will make the 90-minute trek to Spartanburg on Saturday morning and hold their first practice at Wofford at 6:30 p.m. as part of a back-to-football celebration.
Aside from individual work with receivers over the past month, Friday will be the first time quarterback Cam Newton has been a full participant in practice since undergoing offseason surgery on his left ankle.
Here's a complete look at the training camp schedule:
- July 25 -- 6:30-8:30 p.m. FanFest at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
- July 26 -- 4:30 p.m. Back to Football Party at Wofford College in Spartanburg. First camp practice 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.
- July 27 -- 3:10-5:30 p.m.
- July 28 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- July 29 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- July 30 -- No practice.
- July 31 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
- Aug. 1 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- Aug. 2 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- Aug. 3 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- Aug. 4 -- No practice.
- Aug. 5 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
- Aug. 6 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- Aug. 7 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
- Aug. 8 -- 7:30 p.m. preseason opener against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
- Aug. 9 -- No practice.
- Aug. 10 -- 6:10 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
- Aug. 11 -- 3:15 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
- Aug. 12 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
NFL Nation's David Newton examines the three biggest issues facing the Carolina Panthers heading into training camp.
Offensive line: In many ways, the success of the Panthers comes down to how well this revamped group comes together. With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, there's a chance only center Ryan Kalil returns to the position he started at the end of last season. It's not as dire as many think, though. The Panthers are high on starting right tackle Byron Bell or right guard Nate Chandler moving into Gross' spot to protect Cam Newton's blind side. The loser of that battle probably will start on the right side. Carolina also has veteran Garry Williams, coming off an ACL injury, ready to play either tackle or guard. The Panthers love rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott has experience there if needed. Amini Silatolu had won the starting left guard spot last season before suffering a knee injury in the fourth game. He has 18 career starts, so he's solid. It all comes down to chemistry for a team that wants to rely on the run and give Newton freedom to improvise as he does so well.
Wide receivers: No position has drawn more scrutiny during the offseason at Carolina with the top-four receivers from 2013 gone. The biggest reason was the decision to let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go. When Carolina didn't sign a big-time name to replace Smith, the naysayers became more outspoken. But here's my take. The Panthers are better at receiver than they were a year ago. Nothing against Smith, but at 35 he was no better than a No. 2 receiver and at the end of his career. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon really weren't big losses when you look at it closely. Hixon wouldn't have been a loss at all were it not for the game-winning touchdown against New Orleans. The key here will be chemistry, but first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks like a red zone beast at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Free agent signees Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are solid possession receivers, and more dependable than the players they replaced. Who steps up as the fourth receiver will be the biggest question, whether it's free agent Tiquan Underwood or one of the young receivers. The Panthers plan to run a lot more two tight-end sets makes that less critical.
Cam Newton: I was going to go with the secondary here. The Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. But that position is as good or better than it was this time last season, so I'm going with the franchise quarterback here. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. The diagnosis is the ankle will be better than ever, which makes him even more of a threat as a runner since he'll be pain free for the first time since college. I mention Newton here not because of the ankle, but because his ability to take his game to another level will be more important than ever with changes to the line and receiving corps. The leadership and consistency he showed last season will be called upon even more. Just because of the changes he can't be lulled into thinking he has to do it all as he did his first two seasons. But as former left tackle Jordan Gross said last season, as Newton goes so goes the Panthers.
Carolina still is not completely cap healthy. Huge contracts given to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as defensive end Charles Johnson, by former management will force Gettleman to remain somewhat frugal through 2015. But he's at least put the team in position to sign key players such as quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Greg Hardy to long-term deals.
The key to maintaining the success started with a 12-4 2013 season is keeping the star players under contract and being smart about signing the role-players around them. It's the same formula Seattle used to win the Super Bowl this past season.
With Newton and Kuechly in particular, the Panthers have anchors -- and leaders -- on both sides of the ball that should help them remain competitive for years to come. They'll make it easier to sign bargain free agents because players will want to come to Carolina to play with them. The closer Gettleman gets the Panthers to a cap-healthy state, the more flexibility he will have in bringing in those players. But the priority will be to continue to draft young stars, as Carolina has the past three years, and have the money to keep them after their rookie contracts expire.
The key will be to not overspend as past management did, making it tougher to keep the solid nucleus that Gettleman has solidified.
The two-time Pro Bowl selection came in at No. 24 on the NFL Network's list of the league's top 100 players voted on by his peers. That's up 22 spots from last season.
Among the quarterbacks Newton ranked ahead of were Indianapolis' Andrew Luck (30) and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (81).
Newton joined Carolina center Ryan Kalil (93) and defensive end Greg Hardy (53) on the list. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has a chance to be the highest ranked Carolina player as the network reveals its top 20 players over the next two weeks.
Newton is coming off surgery on his left ankle that kept him out of most of the offseason workout program. His most extensive action came in last Thursday's minicamp finale when he completed 8-of-15 pass attempts in 7-on-7 drills.
Newton tweeted Wednesday that he had been cleared medically to work out fully:
Ya boy ACEboog1e excited to be cleared to work out! With a month left until training camp it's no time... http://t.co/0RtgqxyZdN— Cameron Newton (@CameronNewton) June 25, 2014
Gettleman smiled as he glanced at the scene that nearly drowned out his voice.
But it's not just Rivera that makes Gettleman believe the Panthers have a chance to record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It's also the attitude of the players.
"I think they feel they have unfinished business," he said. "It's been since they walked in the door back in April. They've worked very, very hard. They've been very diligent. They're focused."
Rivera has had something to with that. Instilling work ethic starts at the top and filters down. Rivera learned a long time ago as a player with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears what it takes to be successful.
Creating good competition at every position has helped. Players fighting to win -- or keep -- a job tend to work harder than ones that feel they are secure.
That the critics believe the Panthers will take a hard tumble from last season's 12-4 record also is a factor. It has created a chip on shoulders to prove them wrong.
Rivera seems to relish in Carolina being overlooked as a playoff contender. He had sergeant first class Cedric King, who lost both of his legs in duty, speak to the team before breaking for vacation.
"He talked about ... that a lot of people have written you off, a lot of people aren't expecting much of you, then think last year was a bolt of lightning and it won't strike twice,'' said Rivera, who has had King speak to the team before. "It was neat to have him give these guys a little parting shot in terms of 'let's go out and defy a lot of people.' ''
Neither Gettleman nor Rivera would grade the offseason or make predictions other than for Gettleman to say he likes where the team is -- now.
But a lot remains to be determined between now and the opener at Tampa Bay. So with players and coaches headed for a break before reporting for training camp on July 24, here are a few final observations from offseason workouts:
Most important competition: This hasn't changed since offseason workouts began. It's finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler are the primary contenders, with Garry Williams expected to figure in as well.
Bell appears to have the upper hand, but don't rule out Chandler. A former defensive lineman, the Panthers signed him to a three-year extension this week worth close to $8 million. Like he did last year, Chandler will spend a few weeks with Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater between now and camp.
Chandler got to know Slater through his son, Matt, at UCLA.
As Gettleman reminded, "the kids wants it.''
Once the Panthers solidify who will protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side, the talent is there on the rest of the line to be solid.
Toughest cut: That likely will come at tight end, where there are five legitimate candidates to make the roster. Greg Olsen is a given. So is Ed Dickson, signed from Baltimore. Those give Newton two solid targets. Former basketball player Brandon Williams continues to impress as well. Free-agent acquisition Mike McNeill should be kept as a blocking tight end, and Richie Brockel has the flexibility to play tight end and fullback. I could see the Panthers keeping one less wide receiver -- or somebody from another position -- on the final 53-man roster to keep all of these players.
Good to see: You could name several players here, beginning with Newton. The team's franchise quarterback took snaps in seven-on-seven drills in Thursday's final minicamp practice, putting him about a month ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation for March ankle surgery. But the player I'll go with is outside linebacker Thomas Davis. He wasn't wearing a knee brace on Thursday, and looks faster than ever -- and he looked pretty fast last season with the brace. After becoming the first known NFL player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee, an extra step for Davis will only make the NFL's No. 2 defense from last season stronger.
The beast: You'll probably get tired of reading this, but first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin really is a beast. The 6-5, 240-pound wide receiver made yet another unbelievable catch on Thursday, reaching over the cornerback in the left corner of the end zone and literally snatching the ball from the defender's hands while falling backwards and staying inbounds. Benjamin began OTAs going high over the middle between two defenders to snatch a pass so high many couldn't reach. The play made Gettleman go to his knees and grab his heart. If this carries over into the season, there will be "Steve Smith Who?'' T-shirts all over town.
The roster: I won't give you the full depth chart right now, but I'll give you the starters as I see them going into camp. And I'm going with a three wide receiver set on offense, although you'll see a lot of two tight end sets.
Offense: Quarterback -- Cam Newton; WR -- Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Kelvin Benjamin; TE -- Greg Olsen; LT -- Nate Chandler; LG -- Amini Silatolu; C -- Ryan Kalil; RG -- Trai Turner (R); RT -- Byron Bell; RB -- DeAngelo Williams.
Defense: DE -- Charles Johnson; DT -- Colin Cole; DT -- Star Lotulelei; DE -- Greg Hardy; MLB Luke Kuechly; OLB -- Thomas Davis; OLB -- Chase Blackburn; CB -- Melvin White; CB -- Antoine Cason; FS -- Thomas DeCoud; SS -- Roman Harper.
Kick returner: Kenjon Barner
Punt returner: Kenjon Barner
Punter: Brad Nortman
Placekicker: Graham Gano
Keep in mind Charles Godfrey, moving from safety to cornerback, will figure in as a nickel back or possibly every down corner when he returns in full from an Achilles injury. And I went with Chandler at left tackle just because I have a hunch he will come out of this competition with the job.
Out on the practice field was their 6-year-old son George, in a smaller version of the gold Under Armour high top cleats that quarterback Cam Newton wears, taking the snap in a red No. 2 jersey like the red No. 1 Newton wears.
Lined up as a receiver was Newton, still limited from the ankle surgery he had in March, but not so much that he couldn't help fulfill George's wish.
"I was excited today, because of my man, G-square."
Waiting until training camp in late July to participate fully in practice might be monotonous for Newton, but it seems like such a small sacrifice when you consider what George has endured.
In November, a few days before Thanksgiving, a lump the size of a grapefruit was discovered in stomach area of the 4-foot-2 kid from Houston. It was diagnosed as Burkitt's Lymphoma, an intestinal-based cancer.
After two surgeries and five rounds of chemotherapy, doctors pronounced the cancer was in recession.
During the treatment, George became associated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His wish was to be a member of the Carolina Panthers and play with Newton.
On Tuesday, that wish came true.
The Panthers signed George to a complicated deal that included a bonus of Skittles and KitKat bars, fitted him with a locker that included his jersey and cleats that Newton had special ordered, and put him on the practice field with the entire team.
The whole experience will be a part of a "My Wish" television series on ESPN in July. Newton was touched by it.
"The impact I had puts into perspective how much people really actually watch you," Newton said. "Even though he's hundreds of miles away from where we are on the East coast, it still makes an impact being in this NFL.
"It also puts stress on you to let you know you have to be mindful of what you do and what you say as well."
Newton isn't feeling any stress to rush back from the ankle surgery. He's on schedule to be ready for camp, which opens on July 24. Other than being limited in quarterback runs -- a big part of his game -- he is expected to be full-go during the preseason.
That he took three- and five-step drops on Tuesday was another good sign.
"His timing is probably the most important thing as far as their running the routes and him releasing the ball," coach Ron Rivera said as he looked ahead to training camp. "That's probably the biggest thing he's got to get into focus. I'm not concerned with him running now, because that comes very natural for him."
Making George feel special came natural, too. Asked who his favorite player was, there was no hesitation from the kid with the big smile.
"Cam Newton," George said.
Newton probably would like George's enthusiasm during the formal news conference held after practice. Asked how he thought the Panthers would do this season, George said, "They might win the Super Bowl."
He also did a good job of avoiding the hard questions like, "Who are your favorite role models?"
"I don't know what that means," he said.
George did seem a bit puzzled when he was asked if he ate his Fruit Loops for breakfast with a spoon. Guess he hasn't familiarized himself with defensive end Greg Hardy and his alter persona, "The Kraken."
George was a good reminder for a team many are expecting to take a hard fall from last season's 12-4 record that dealing with the hot, muggy conditions in June isn't so bad.
He was a good reminder for Newton that as monotonous as his recovery has been, it's just a minor setback.
But this journey isn't over. George will return to Charlotte and be the team's Keep Pounding drummer before the August 17 preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Maybe by then he will have his timing down on passes to Newton.
"It was pretty good," Newton said of George's pass that he had to stretch hard for. "We've got to coach him up and get better at things, but so do I."
Here are five things to keep an eye on:
- Cam Newton -- The fourth-year quarterback and coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility last week that Newton will be cleared medically to fully participate. Don't count on it. There is no real reason for Newton to risk a setback with the left ankle that required surgery in March for just three days of practice. Experts say it typically takes four months for the ankle to be completely recovered, which would end the rehabilitation in mid-July. Newton may be feeling good enough to throw and dance -- as we've seen him at some off-the-field functions -- but as he reminded, he'll step on a rock walking to the stadium and be reminded there's still healing to be done. My guess is you'll see him out there throwing some with his new receivers, but not in full team drills. It's not worth it at this point.
- Left tackle -- I easily could have said the entire offensive line here since there is a complete overhaul other than center, where Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil is set. But finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross is the most critical since that player is responsible for protecting Newton's blind side. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler split the role during organized team activities, and this will be a rehash of what they've learned. The real battle won't start until training camp when they put the pads on. Most believe Bell, moving from starting right tackle, has the inside track on the position. He was the first to work at left tackle during OTAs. But Chandler was working out at tackle before injuries last season forced him to move to right guard, where he started the final eight regular-season games. A former defensive tackle, he has solid footwork and the size (6-4, 310) to play the position. He just doesn't have experience. Working against defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks last season with 15, will tell a lot. If you can hold your own against Hardy, then you can hold your own against most in the NFL. It's the same trial by fire Gross got with former Panther Julius Peppers across from him.[+] EnlargeBob Leverone/AP PhotoCarolina Panthers offensive tackle Nate Chandler (left) holds a blocking pad as teammate Byron Bell extends his arms during drills on June 11.
- Wide receiver pairings -- Free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin were paired a lot in OTAs when the Panthers went to three-receiver sets. The next grouping I noticed a lot included Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin. Trimming the wide receivers corps to six will be the toughest of any position. Outside the top combination, the rest are trying to earn a spot and prove worthy. You'll see a lot of King, Marvin McNutt, Toney Clemons, Kealoha Pilares and Philly Brown as the Panthers try to replace their top four receivers from last season. Cotchery and Avant provide experience, and Benjamin provides a big target (6-5, 240) that will be tough to keep off the field. Underwood is the most likely to round out the top four. But one of the reasons the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go was to give the young receivers a chance to prove themselves that they otherwise wouldn't have with Smith taking most of the repetitions. This is their chance.
- Rookies -- Four rookies have a legitimate shot to make major contributions this season, with two possibly starting. As mentioned above, you can pencil Benjamin into the top three at wide receiver. He'll especially be a big target inside the red zone. Second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, won't get to show how his pass-rushing abilities translate into the NFL for real until he gets in pads. He won't start, but the Panthers hope he's a regular in the rotation at end, as well as tackle. Third-round pick Trai Turner spent much of OTAs as the starting right guard with veteran Chris Scott dealing with conditioning and -- as Rivera said last week -- health issues. If he can hold his own against Carolina's big tackles, he has a chance to be a steal. The fourth rookie to make a big impression thus far is fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere, a cornerback out of San Jose State. He already may be the front-runner for the nickel spot, but his real competition won't be there until training camp when Charles Godfrey is expected to return fully from an Achilles injury that ended his season in the second game last season. Godfrey is making the transition from safety back to corner, where he started most of his college year.
- Secondary -- You could just say cornerback here. The safeties appear to be set with veteran free-agent acquisitions Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Finding a replacement for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota, and possibly upgrade on the other side where undrafted rookie Melvin White started most of last season, will be key. Free agent Antoine Cason has experience in this system from his days at San Diego, where the defensive coordinator was Rivera. But Cason couldn't make the starting lineup at Arizona last season, so he still has a lot to prove. Josh Norman has made some spectacular plays in practice, just as he did the past two seasons in practice and preseason games, but he's yet to translate that into games on a regular basis. Rookie Benwikere has impressed in OTAs at the nickel spot, so don't rule him out. But like the offensive line and other areas in question, this won't be completely ironed out until training camp when Godfrey (as mentioned above) gets into the mix. Regardless, the Panthers are ahead of last season at this point at least in terms of experience.
- Bonus watch: The heat. With temperatures expected in the mid-90s and high humidity, Rivera moved practices from midday-early afternoon to 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET. It was a smart move to avoid heat-related injuries in June. It'll be plenty hot at camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Carolina's Ron Rivera.
"Ron, and I will say, this is really weird sitting here asking you questions," Hurney said halfway through the interview on Charlotte's ESPN 730 (WZGV-AM).
And it was weird listening to Hurney ask Rivera questions about a team he helped build.
"How's Marty doing so far?" Gardner asked Rivera, putting the pressure on immediately.
Hurney interrupted, "Be nice, Ron. We're playing nice today."
Said Rivera, "He's doing well. You know, the best part is now he can just show everybody he has all the answers."
Replied Hurney, "Hey, always did, right?"
Hurney began the interview by complimenting Rivera for adjusting this week's minicamp (Tuesday-Thursday) practices from midday to morning because of the heat that is expected to be in the mid-90s.
From there, he asked about the wide receivers Carolina brought in to replace the top four that are gone from last season. There was no debate about whether the team made the right decision in releasing Steve Smith.
Rivera reminded it goes back to when Hurney and he drafted Cam Newton as the franchise quarterback in 2011 and how the next step in the process was to put playmakers around him.
Hurney never got to see that part play out. He was fired by the Panthers in October 2012 after the team started 1-5 under Rivera. He's laid low the past couple of years, but resurfaced in March to serve as a guest analyst on ESPN's "NFL Insiders."
Being a part of the media is nothing new for Hurney, who hired Rivera in 2011 and many of the players that contributed to this past season's 12-4 record. He was a sportswriter for the The Washington Times before moving to the team side first with the Washington Redskins and then the San Diego Chargers with general manager Bobby Beathard.
Hurney joined the personnel department at Carolina in 1998 and was promoted to general manager in 2002. The Panthers went to the Super Bowl in 2003.
Rivera was named the NFL Coach of the Year three years after Hurney hired him.
Hurney was always intense but never openly critical as a general manager. It'll be interesting to hear his take on the Panthers moving forwrad, whether he'll be critical of bad moves or game decisions.
As he told Rivera on Monday, they were "playing nice today."
It also was a nice start for Hurney as he begins another journey.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton leaned into the microphone and stared straight ahead into the cameras like a politician trying to make an election-clinching point.
"Who's terrified?" the Carolina Panthers quarterback said. "Nobody's terrified. I'm not terrified of nothing."
That's how Newton addressed on Wednesday a report by the NFL Network that the new contract of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick "really scares people who know Cam Newton very well."
Newton shouldn't be scared.
While Kaepernick's six-year, $126-million deal is filled with escalators and clauses that makes it sound much bigger than it is and may have set a standard by which Newton's next deal could be measured, it by no means set a limit.
That the report says Newton will want more guaranteed money than the actual $13 million Kaepernick was guaranteed should come as no surprise either.
Of course Newton wants more than $13 million up front.
If he follows this season with one as successful as 2013, he'll deserve it. He may deserve it even if the team suffers a drop-off from its 12-4 record -- as long as his performance isn't the reason.
The Panthers are sold on Newton, who has made the Pro Bowl in two of his first three seasons and brought the organization more notoriety than perhaps any player in franchise history. They have no doubt he is their quarterback of the future, and they will do everything within reason to lock him up to a long-term deal.
That's a big reason general manager Dave Gettleman has spent the past year and a half restructuring deals to get the team out from under salary-cap hell. He knows there will come a time soon when he has to pay Newton.
In all likelihood, Newton's representatives will seek a deal closer to the seven-year deal with $54 million guaranteed that Chicago's Jay Cutler received in January.
They do share the same agent, Bus Cook.
If Newton said he would take the deal Kaepernick got today, Gettleman would trip over his feet to get it signed. It would be a steal. But that isn't likely to happen.
Nothing is likely to happen until early 2015, when Newton enters the final year of his contract. There's not much incentive on Carolina's side to do anything before then unless Newton wants to commit to a bargain.
To Newton's credit, he said all the right things Wednesday. He said his concern was getting the left ankle that underwent surgery in March healthy enough that he can get back on the field.
That could come as early as next week's three-day minicamp.
Regardless, Newton is fired up about proving last season wasn't a fluke. He also is fired up about proving he's good enough to make a new group of wide receivers better than the public perception after Carolina lost its top four from last season.
That, more than a new contract, is what's on his mind.
"It's kind of like a slap in, not only their faces, but mine as well," Newton said of the criticism his new receivers have received. "The things that they're saying this year is utmost disrespect.
"For you to hear some things that's said, it's actually as if you're being picked up from the street and saying, 'Hey, you want to play receiver?'"
So why is this a slap in Newton's face? Look at it this way. Few people criticized New England's new group of receivers last season because the critics believe quarterback Tom Brady can throw to anybody and make him look good.
Newton believes he can do the same.
It would be terrifying if he didn't believe that.
"That's the chip on our shoulder," Newton said. "That's the Panther way -- not having the silver spoon in our mouth to say we're given everything. We've earned every single thing that we've got."
That's where Newton's focus should be. If he takes care of business, he'll make the guarantees in Kaepernick's contract look like pocket change.
The only thing that should terrify him is failure.
"I'm excited about what Colin Kaepernick has done because he's a friend of mine," Newton said. "Those circumstances are different for the 49ers than it is for the Panthers -- different management, different situations. For me being the Carolina Panthers' quarterback, it's my obligation to be 100 percent -- no limping, no gimping, no grimacing or nothing when it's time for me to be on that practice field.
"Everybody has an opportunity to do something great. How foolish of us to let that opportunity slip through our hands without making the most of it."
More often than not you find athletes as Elway was during his Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos avoiding the media, not praising them.
Elway even joked that for the first time in his career of facing reporters, he would take no questions.
But before Elway began waxing eloquence -- and a few wisecracks -- on Reilly, he answered a couple of my questions about a subject he is indeed comfortable discussing.
Specifically, because he was in Cam Newton territory, I asked what he thought about the Carolina Panthers quarterback as he prepared for his fourth season.
"I think he's a tremendous athlete," Elway said. "He just continues to get better and better. And you look at what he did last year and the strides that he's made, he's going to make another big jump this year.
"Just as a quarterback having been there, the things that you see from your first to second to third year are always big jumps, so he's going to continue to get better. He's got all the ability to being a great one."
Elway and Newton have a few things in common, beginning with both were the first pick of their respective drafts -- Elway in 1983 and Newton in 2011.
Both also struggled to win their first season. Elway was 4-6 as a starter. Newton was 6-10.
Both were 0-1 in the playoffs after their first three seasons.
Elway, 53, understands it's natural for quarterbacks to struggle earlier in their careers. He completed only 47.5 percent of his passes and threw 14 interceptions to seven touchdowns as a rookie.
Although the Broncos went 12-2 during his second season, he threw for only 2,598 yards and 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.
It wasn't until his third season that Elway took off statistically, throwing for 3,891 yards and 22 touchdowns. Even then, he threw 23 interceptions, giving him 54 interceptions to 47 touchdowns in his first three seasons.
If you break it down statistically, Newton is far ahead of Elway after three years. He has completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 11,299 yards. Elway completed 53.3 percent of his passes for 8,152 yards.
Newton has 64 touchdown passes and 42 interceptions. As stated above, Elway was at 47 and 54 at the same point.
Newton has been to two Pro Bowls. Elway didn't make the first of his nine until his fourth season.
As with Elway, what happens from the fourth season on will determine where Newton winds up in league history.
Elway went to his first of five Super Bowls in his fourth year, winning his last two in 1997 and 1998. He statistically was the second-most prolific passer in NFL history when he retired in 1999.
So when Elway says Newton has the ability to be a great one, you tend to listen. He believes that Newton, recovering from offseason ankle surgery, is on the cusp of becoming one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
"There's no question," Elway said. "He's a threat. Whenever somebody plays Carolina, you have to worry about Cam Newton. He's got the ability to be that guy."
Elway can say that comfortably.
Turns out he was pretty comfortable praising Reilly as well.
And when I say glimpse, I mean glimpse because the workouts are closed to the public. The most one can expect to see is players walking to and from the stadium to the practice fields. But thanks to quarterback Cam Newton, it was a vacation Redd and his family will never forget.
Newton began giving out footballs after touchdowns in 2011. He gave one to Redd, a Carolina fan from Orlando, after throwing a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left in a 20-16 victory at Miami on Nov. 24. It capped Carolina's seventh-straight victory in which Newton kept the winning drive alive with an improbable 19-yard completion to Steve Smith on fourth-and-10 from the Carolina 20.
Redd at the time of that play was sitting in the stands 80 yards away near the corner where Newton ultimately connected with Olsen before giving the ball away. His brother recorded the game-winning moment on his cell phone and posted it on Facebook.
As you can see, Redd was beyond ecstatic. He got another thrill on Monday standing outside the Carolina practice fields as Newton arrived. Holding the ball and picture of him cheering after Newton gave him the ball, Newton stopped to sign both.
"Is that you?" Newton asked according to Redd. "I replied, 'Yessir, and War Eagle!"
First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who caught the game-winning touchdown in Florida State's victory over Newton's beloved Auburn team in this past season's BCS title game, replied, "What?" Newton, who led Auburn to the 2010 national championship, replied, "Hey, man, don't make me stomp on all this FSU stuff!"
Redd sent me an email in May asking about attending OTAs with his son to get the ball autographed. I told him they were closed, but he might have a shot at the autograph if he positioned himself near the entrance to the practice fields. I also suggested he might have more fun at the Whitewater Center on a typical hot, muggy day in Charlotte.
Was I wrong.
The experience of meeting Newton for the autograph was nearly as exciting for Redd as the experience of getting the ball. Here's what he told me about the first moment:
"It was an awesome experience and something that I will never forget. I was sitting in the end zone when Cam (threw) the game-winning TD pass to Greg Olsen! After that play is when my 15 seconds of fame started. I can remember it like it was yesterday!
"I noticed Cam grabbing the ball from the ref and heading in my direction; it felt like something from the movies because it seemed like an hour but it was only a few seconds. I knew this was a national televised game so the first thing to come to my mind was, 'You have to stay cool, millions of people are watching.' Cam gives me the ball and a high-five while I screamed out, 'War Eagle!' I'm an Auburn alum (which Cam will be soon).
"I get back to Orlando and see the highlights on ESPN and there I am! Not only ESPN, but Fox Sports, CBS, NFL Network and 'Monday Night Football' used the same clip and I was on all of them! I was getting the star treatment from all my friends back home in Montgomery, Alabama. My 2-year-old son (whose name is Cam!) was watching the ESPN highlights and he pointed to the TV screen and starts yelling 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!' It was truly an experience of a lifetime and something that I will cherish for the rest of my life!"
He'll cherish Monday's experience, too. Apparently, you don't have to go to the beaches or mountains to escape the real world.
"Ok, I've got to confess," the former Florida State wide receiver said this week. "He beat me."
Newton prides himself on having a lethal pair of thumbs when it comes to the video game, but that wasn't enough to get him past Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in the "Madden 15" cover vote finals that ended Friday.
Sherman won fairly convincingly, denying Newton in the finals for the second time since the Panthers made him the first pick of the 2011 draft.
At least it didn't come down to a few votes. Then Newton could have blamed head coach Ron Rivera, who told ESPN.com he voted for "the opposition" multiple times because he wanted to avoid the curse that often befalls the cover winner.
The good news for Newton is he is only 25, so there will be other opportunities to grace the cover.
That he has made the cover vote finals twice also is good news. That means he's popular among the fans and considered the face of the Carolina organization even if he's not the face of Madden.
That is a positive for a player who, until Carolina's 12-4 2013 season, was questioned about whether he could come out from under his Gatorade towel on the sideline and be a leader.
Winning on the field is what it's ultimately about, which is why Rivera didn't want to take any chances with the cover curse. Newton would admit the same.
OOOOUCH! I never will accept LOS1NG but I must say the MADDENcover was a fun event! Thanks to EVERY1... http://t.co/Sday4oA0h0— Cameron Newton (@CameronNewton) June 7, 2014
Spending time on and off the field with Benjamin while he recovers from offseason ankle surgery will help that cause.
"We're just building that trust, letting him know that I'll be there always ... bad ball, good ball, I'll make it right," said Benjamin, who spent the Memorial Day Weekend at Newton's home in Atlanta.
But you know Newton wanted the cover badly. Even Benjamin could see that.
"I voted for him, so I really want him to make it on the cover," he said when the vote remained in question. "I think he would be so happy. He's a big Madden fan."