CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton will have plenty to do when the NFC South champion Panthers report to training camp.
In between spending time in the training room rehabbing from offseason ankle surgery, Newton hopes to develop some on-field chemistry with a completely revamped group of wide receivers.
Toss in the fact coach Ron Rivera is counting on Newton to take on a bigger leadership role following the departures of longtime offensive captains Steve Smith and Jordan Gross and you have the makings of an important, pressure-packed summer for the fourth-year quarterback.
"I'm excited to take this challenge to be this team's leader," said Newton "More has been given to me on my plate, and be a leader of men."
Newton has never missed a start in three seasons. He's expected to be ready to go when camp opens Friday after sitting out all but one practice during OTAs and minicamp.
None of the wide receivers on the roster caught a pass from Newton last season.
After releasing Steve Smith and allowing Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon to leave in free agency, the Panthers restocked by drafting Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin in the first round and adding free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King are the only two returning wide receivers, but neither has caught an NFL pass.
Tight end Greg Olsen, one of Newton's favorite targets the past three seasons, will return, providing at least some stability in the passing game.
Still, Newton said he will spend quite a bit of time learning the tendencies of his new wide receivers: how they come out of their breaks; where they like the ball thrown; what routes they feel most comfortable running in games.
Newton doesn't seem overly concerned.
"We'll have plenty of time to develop that chemistry" in training camp, he said.
Rivera, whose defense has 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly at linebacker, isn't worried about the offense, either. He was quick to point out Newton didn't get any OTA or minicamp work his first year due to the NFL lockout in 2011, but still managed to put up big numbers and was the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Newton and Rivera seem more focused on the big picture: getting the Panthers to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time, and winning a postseason game for the first time since 2005.
"Status quo isn't good enough," Rivera said.
Here are some things to watch from the Panthers at training camp:
RUNNING ON EMPTY?: Rivera is hoping veteran running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart still have something left. Williams turned 31 in April, while Stewart has missed 17 games over the past two seasons due to ankle and foot injuries. Williams has been running with the first team, but Rivera thinks Stewart looks healthier than he's been in a few years and is ready to make an impact.
SECONDARY COHESIVENESS: The Panthers return everyone from a strong front seven, but questions still remain about a suspect secondary. To make matters worse for the Panthers, starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell parlayed big seasons into substantial free agent contracts in Minnesota and Pittsburgh. The Panthers added cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, but the secondary remains the weakest position on the league's No. 2-ranked defense.
PROTECTING CAM: Gross retired in February after 11 seasons, leaving a huge hole at left tackle. The Panthers didn't address the vacancy in free agency or the draft, confident they could find the answer on their own roster. They're counting on Nate Chandler, a converted defensive tackle, or Byron Bell, last year's starting right tackle, to win the job. That's a considerable risk considering that job involves protecting Newton's blind side. Both guard spots are also up for grabs.
RETURN TO SENDER: Losing Ginn really hurts the return game. He handled kickoffs and punts last season and provided not only stability, but plenty of big plays. The Panthers don't have any returners nearly as explosive, and it's unclear who'll replace him. They've looked at Kealoha Pilares, Underwood and Cason as options, but this is a position that is wide open.
PREPARING FOR SEPTEMBER: The Panthers have started no better than 1-3 in each of their past three seasons under Rivera, so it's not surprising he's considering changing his approach at training camp. Exactly what he'll tweak is uncertain.
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