Senior NFL Columnist

Panthers camp report: Newton going to great lengths to avoid sophomore slump


Ron Rivera's top priority in year No. 2 is fixing a defense that ranked 30th in yards per play. (AP)  
Ron Rivera's top priority in year No. 2 is fixing a defense that ranked 30th in yards per play. (AP)  

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The rumblings are out there already, at water coolers and on the radio airwaves, and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has heard them as well.

Sophomore slump.

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It's become a given that every rookie who has a successful first season will be targeted for that supposed doom season the following year -- a knock-you-off-the-pedestal way of thinking.

With Newton, there is talk of the league figuring him out after his impressive rookie season in which he was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.

"Sophomore slump?" Newton said. "Absolutely not."

Even if he says it won't happen, it doesn't mean he's immune to hearing talk of it.

"Whatever comes about, this year people are still going to talk," Newton said. "At one point in a person's career they will arrive and not have people talking about them anymore."

There's a slim chance of that happening, especially since Newton came into the league with so much scrutiny following his winning the Heisman Trophy in his only season as a college starter at a big-time program. Controversy seemed to follow him on his path to the NFL, although now much of it seems overblown without any substantiation.

Newton was the first player drafted by the Panthers, but some wondered why. Was he worth the risk? At first, I thought that to be the case. But after watching his tape and seeing him in camp last summer, my thinking on him changed.

For many, it still has not. There are still coaches around the league who think he will need to show that he can continue to grow.

To help his growth, Newton came to Panthers coach Ron Rivera in February with an idea.

"Coach, I can't go through it [going 5-11] and I won't accept it," Newton said to Rivera. "I have to get better."

Newton told Rivera he was going to get the tapes of all the top quarterbacks, including Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and others to help improve his game. He watched for the little things to see what he needed to do to even be better.

"If I want to take the next step, I had to see the guys who have made the step and watch then," Newton said.

As wonderfully talented as Newton is, he wants to be great. He works at it. That's a good sign.

"He's a gym rat," Rivera said. "He will come in here and work out on his own. We had to tell him not to come in here on his day off."

Newton is much more comfortable now with the system after having an entire offseason to digest it. He was learning on the fly last year with the lockout, yet somehow stepped onto the field and threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdown passes. He also ran for 14 touchdowns, a record for a quarterback.

But there were negatives. He threw 17 interceptions and his fourth-quarter numbers were lower than his per-game averages, leading to talk that he was figured out in games.

One thing Newton has done is to form more of a bond with his teammates. There was some talk that he was distanced from them as a rookie. There is also talk that some veterans didn't take too kindly to him during Pro Bowl week, which led to his spending a lot of time alone and also led to what appeared to be the AFC team taking extra delight in hitting him during the game.

I told him that and said it was like Michael Jordan getting the treatment from veteran NBA players during his first All-Star game.

"You live and you learn," Newton said.

"Our guys are starting to look to him a little more," Rivera said. "It helps that they know what they have now."

What they have is a player who isn't going to let talk of a sophomore slump derail his quest to be great.

"We won six games last year," Newton said. "That's simply not acceptable."

That's why he watched the greats as he tries to become one.

Team Objectives

  Fix the defense. Carolina was 30th in yards per play last season, which eats at Rivera, a former linebacker who came to the team with a defensive background. The Panthers were hit with injuries on that side of the ball early and often. They lost defensive tackle Ron Edwards in camp, and that left a huge hole in the run defense. But the biggest thing was because of the lockout, Rivera wasn't able to install a lot of the things he wanted to do on that side of the ball. "We had to scrap some things we wanted to do and go back to the basics," Rivera said. Now that everything is in the book, expect to see improvement. They also will get a lift by returning players from injury, such as Edwards and linebacker Jon Beason, and the addition of first-round linebacker Luke Kuechly.

  Solidify the offensive line. They have two top-level players in left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil. But there are concerns at left guard, where rookie Amini Silatolu is scheduled to start, and at right tackle where Byron Bell is the starter. Bell showed some ability when he started some last season, so there is hope there. The Panthers were 15th in sacks per pass play last season, and that's with a mobile Newton. That has to be better.

  Improve the pass rush. Defensive end Charles Johnson received a big contract before last season, but didn't play as well expected. He had just nine sacks, which wasn't quite getting the bang for the buck the Panthers wanted. "I wasn't as good as I was the year before," Johnson said. "I can say that." Johnson and fellow end Greg Hardy have to impact the quarterback more. Carolina was 22nd in sacks per pass play, which led to them being 27th in third-down defense. That isn't good enough.

Camp Battles

Free safety: Sherrod Martin is the incumbent starter, but the Panthers were looking to upgrade, which is why former Ravens backup Haruki Nakamura was signed. Martin has more range, but Nakamura probably brings a bigger pop in the run game. He does struggle against the pass, but I get the feeling that the physical style is something the Panthers want.

Projected winner: Nakamura. He hits, but it's risky to have him in coverage.

Starting corner: Chris Gamble is set at one corner. But who wins the job on the other side? Captain Munnerlyn started there some last season, but the team really likes rookie Josh Norman. He missed some time with a hamstring injury, but look for him to eventually take this job.

Projected winner: Norman. He's making a big jump from Coastal Carolina, but he doesn't seem awed by the challenge.

No. 3 receivers: Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are set as the top two guys, but who is the third guy? Veteran Louis Murphy, who came over from the Raiders, is in the mix. Seyi Ajirotutu, who came over from San Diego, has been impressive. There are a lot of other guys in the mix, including rookies Joe Adams.

Projected winner: Murphy. Newton knows him from Florida and he appears comfortable with him.

Somebody to Watch

Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly is impressive. He has that nose for the football and will be an immediate starter. He and Jon Beason have formed a tight bond and will work well together. The staff is raving about Kuechly and he might be considered a frontrunner to be the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Injury Roundup

  WR David Gettis still isn't back working after tearing an ACL last yar.

  RB Tauren Poole has a concussion.

  LB Jon Beason. He has a hamstring injury that is keeping him out. Expects to be back for final preseason game.

  LB Thomas Davis. Working back from another knee injury. He is taking part in individual drills, but no team drills.

The Last Word

The Panthers should once again be good on offense, maybe even top 5, but this season is about the defense.

Newton will again put up big numbers and we know they will run the ball with their high-priced backfield, so how much the defense improves will determine how well they play.

I think they are a year away. They play in a brutal division and with so much uncertainty at several key defensive positions the offense will be asked to do too much.

I like where they are headed, and they should be fun to watch again, but 2013 will be their year to push for a division title.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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