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Panthers' Newton takes steps to show he gets it

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CHARLOTTE -- We have no idea if 2011 first overall draft pick Cam Newton will be the Carolina Panthers' starter when they open the season at Arizona Sept. 11. He will be the starter at some point, though -- and he seems to get that.

Don't misconstrue: Newton is not treating his pole position in the draft as a birthright, but rather assuming everything that comes with the job.

He was among the first six players to arrive shortly before team facilities opened at 10 a.m. ET Tuesday, a shade ahead of second-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Players were not allowed in team facilities before then, so his timing was, if nothing else, punctual. His veteran teammates also said he was routinely one of the first to arrive at the summertime workouts at a local high school.

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"My game plan is to just come in each day with an open mind to want to learn," Newton said in an exclusive interview with NFL Network and NFL.com. "I'm somewhat of a sponge right now, to take in as much as I can and retain it. This thing is going to be somewhat of an express train. Next thing I know the season is right around the corner."

Within minutes of entering team headquarters, Newton was in the meeting room with quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. He didn't leave except to grab a quick bite of lunch with running back Jonathan Stewart.

The self-tutoring Newton and Clausen put themselves through with the playbook during player-organized workouts were one thing. This was a completely new animal.

Clausen said one of the first things they worked on was the cadence of the snap count. Something as simple as a "hutt-HUTT" varies from system to system. It's one of the many nuances that players and coaches missed during the lockout, when no contact was allowed.

For now, it's a cram session for Newton. Again, not to discount Clausen or any other quarterback, but Newton wasn't taken first overall to be a backup for long.

The grind of learning is going to be intense. In fact, this shotgun marriage of Newton and figuring out the schemes, personnel and how to handle all of the demands of an NFL quarterback could let the Panthers know pretty quickly if they made the right move with the selection of their first bona-fide, face-of-the-franchise quarterback.

Newton is fighting an uphill battle. During the draft process, some doubted his acumen to understand a complex system, since he ran a simple system en route to winning the Heisman Trophy and a national title at Auburn. (I'm not buying the doubt, because if it was so simple, why couldn't so many brilliant defensive coordinators and coaches figure out how to stop him?)

Taking care of business in tight timeframes often is what distinguishes the good quarterbacks from the great ones. What will be interesting to watch is whether Newton or Clausen pick things up at the same pace or if one distinguishes himself. Sure, Clausen got experience last season but that's about the only advantage he has over Newton.

The person in the most intriguing position is general manager Marty Hurney. He used a second-round pick last season on Clausen and then the first overall selection on Newton this time around. Most general managers don't get a second chance to make good when a high draft choice at quarterback doesn't pan out. Hurney does -- sort of.

Hurney can be forgiven if Clausen doesn't work out. He won't be if Newton doesn't.

So far, Newton's done all the right things. He's shown up to team functions. He's been professional. He's laid low, avoiding the "icon" and "entertainer" persona.

"I'm just going about things on a day-to-day basis, trying to prove who I really am," Newton said. "When it comes to this team, I’m a team player. That's the type of person I am –- to put this team first."

Newton's also shown that he wants this. As the first overall pick, he could have stayed away until his contract -- which will be in the range of four years, $22.3 million -- was signed. There is some room for negotiations and staying away to squeeze out a few more bucks would have been, to some people, a wise business play.

Newton opted for the wise football play by showing up at the team facility Tuesday.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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