CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Mike Shula knows how vital Cam Newton is to the Carolina Panthers, particularly after the franchise rewarded him with a $103.8 million contract extension.
Yet Carolina's offensive coordinator isn't about to put Newton in shackles when it comes to running out of the read-option or scrambling from the pocket - despite the obvious increased risk of injury.
''You have to let him play, give him the ability to do what he does best,'' Shula told The Associated Press. ''And you have to appreciate that Cam understands that, too. He's not going to play cautiously, but he's going to play smart.''
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Shula said he doesn't mind if the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton takes on a defender one on one - in fact with his size, he likes those odds - but said he wants the fifth-year quarterback to ''get down'' if multiple defenders engage him in the open field.
Newton runs the ball more than any quarterback in the NFL, averaging 642 yards rushing per season, with 33 touchdowns the last four seasons.
His numbers dipped slightly in 2014 following offseason ankle surgery, broken ribs in the preseason and an automobile accident late in the season that left him with two fractures in his lower back. But Newton said he's recovered from those injuries and is healthier now than he's been since coming into the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick in 2011.
Newton, expected to operate more from the no-huddle this year, recently said that while fans may worry about him getting hurt, it's not something that concerns him.
''I don't live life with any type of regrets,'' Newton said. ''When you start playing not to get hurt with anything, that is when those type of things happen.''
Newton enters this year with increased expectations after leading his team to two straight NFC South titles.
After signing Newton to the big extension, general manager Dave Gettleman proclaimed the quarterback is the guy to get the Panthers to ''the promised land.''
''I feel like I can get us there as well,'' Newton said of leading the Panthers to their first Super Bowl title. ''They're not saying anything I don't think myself.''
Here are some things to watch from the Panthers:
REPLACING BENJAMIN: The biggest concern for the Panthers entering the season is replacing Kelvin Benjamin, the team's No. 1 wide receiver in 2014 with 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday that Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. will open the season as starters. It's expected Newton will lean heavily on tight end Greg Olsen, who is coming off the most productive season of his eight-year NFL career with 84 receptions for 1,008 yards and six TDs.
STEWART'S INCREASED LOAD: With DeAngelo Williams gone, Shula estimated running back Jonathan Stewart should get ''about 50 percent'' more carries than last season. By those projections Stewart would average slightly more than 20 carries per game. Stewart ran for 809 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 13 games last season, but concerns linger about his durability after he missed six games in 2012, nine in 2013 and three in 2014 due to injuries.
MANNING THE MIDDLE: Carolina's defense is led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, whom coach Ron Rivera views as the best linebacker tandem in the NFL. The Panthers bolstered that area a little more this season by adding first-round pick Shaq Thompson from Washington, giving them even more speed and an ability to better defend teams like Seattle with top notch tight ends. Carolina has finished in the top 10 in defense in each of the past three seasons.
THE BLIND SIDE: The Panthers gave up on the Byron Bell experiment and brought in Michael Oher to protect Newton's blind side. Oher has been impressive in the preseason, exceeding Rivera's expectations after an unsuccessful stint with the Tennessee Titans last season. The big question will be how he holds up in the regular season once defenses begin scheming against the Panthers.
EALY TO THE PARTY: Kony Ealy, a second-round draft pick in 2014, won the team's starting right defensive end battle - a position formerly held by Greg Hardy. Carolina has a strong defensive line with Charles Johnson, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei as the other starters, but all three have missed significant time this preseason with injuries.
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