In the past two preseasons, Cam Newton would post modest totals and no one would sweat a thing. He'd still go out when the games counted and put up very good numbers.
Back then he also had a dependable offensive line and wasn't coming off of ankle surgery. This year, the offensive line isn't quite as good and the ankle is healthy enough for him to get on the field, but there looks like there's some tentative movement.
As it turns out, the ankle isn't quite at 100 percent after all. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after Friday's game at the Patriots that trainers "worked his ankle" once he was taken out of the game.
This was after he left for one play on his final series with the starters when he suffered a back contusion while getting hit on a 7-yard run. X-rays were negative but he was still sore, according to Rivera.
That was one of many hits Newton took as he was sacked three times over 15 dropbacks Friday including twice on the Panthers first drive. His pocket awareness was good but when he had to move around he just didn't seem like his old self. And when he threw the ball he wasn't consistently sharp either, often forcing his targets to adjust to his passes instead of always hitting them perfectly.
Rivera said he's satisfied "for the most part" with where Newton is at in his recovery from offseason ankle surgery but admitted there are still some kinks in Newton's game.
"[I'm] just a little disappointed that our timing and rhythm isn't there yet," Rivera said. "Hopefully we can get that down. We will work on it most certainly because when he gets his rhythm, you can see that he does some really good things. Last week he missed a couple and then all of a sudden he got on fire and did some really good things at the end."
If there's an area where Newton shined, it was throwing to Kelvin Benjamin. The rookie receiver is pretty much the real deal for Carolina, snaring 5 of 6 passes thrown his way for 47 yards, just more than half of the 88 yards Newton threw for on the night. No other Carolina starter had more than 21 yards through the air.
The Panthers recognize just how important Benjamin is for their offense.
"I thought Kelvin did exactly what we needed," Rivera said, "Kelvin stood out."
Last year was the first time in Newton's three seasons he didn't have a receiver top 1,000 yards through the air. In 2011 and 2012 Steve Smith did it both times thanks to a slew of targets (at least 129) and a ridiculously huge receiving average (at least 16 yards per each season). Despite a sub-10 yard average on Friday, Benjamin is sporting a 14.6 average on eight grabs through three games. If he catches 70 passes on, say, at least 129 targets then he'll get over 1,000 yards.
So while Cam's Fantasy outlook is considerably cooled by his O-line, his ankle and the rest of his receiving corps, Benjamin has some serious potential to be an impact Fantasy option as a rookie. Round 8 might be when you'll first consider any Panthers player ... and Benjamin should be the first.