|Bill Feig/Associated Press|
|Cam Newton enjoyed one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history, instantly making the Panthers relevant again.|
Cam Newton threw for more yards than any rookie in NFL history last year -- and ran for more touchdowns than any quarterback, of any age, ever, to boot.
So how does he build on one of the greatest debut seasons the game's ever seen?
In a film room. And a meeting room. And on a practice field. And in a weight room. And doing all the things that, last year, he and the rest of the 2011 draft class couldn't -- spending their first three months as professional athletes waiting out the longest work stoppage the league has ever seen.
For Newton and fellow first-round sophomores Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder, the past month and the weeks ahead signify the first real, toned-down learning experience they've had as NFL players. Progress is the expectation, and it'll be necessary, too. On the other side of the coin, defensive coaches have time to review and revise their plans to attack these young quarterbacks.
"One of the things Cam and I have talked about is, 'You're no longer an unknown,' " Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "People know what to expect from you. People know what we do offensively. Now, we'll find out how much you've grown."
With that in mind, the time is right to look at where Newton, Locker, Gabbert and Ponder need to improve this spring, with a little help from their coaches ...
Cam Newton, No. 1 overall pick, Carolina Panthers
How to improve on a rookie year in which he threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, and ran for 706 yards and 14 scores? It goes back to the pre-draft criticism of Newton -- becoming fundamentally better under center and as a traditional quarterback. That's not to say Rivera and Co. are going to try and turn Newton into Dan Marino. They won't. The idea is to make him even more diverse as a player.
"Probably the biggest thing with him is technique, both throwing on the move and taking the snap from under center," Rivera said. "Evaluating from last year, I'd say we see where we want him to work on his footwork, going under center, planting and stepping into his throws. He just needs to be more consistent with it. Those things are big."
A month into that work, the quarterback's eating it up, according to his coaches.
"The offensive coaches evaluated all his strengths and weaknesses, the things he needs to do physically as a quarterback to get better," Rivera continued. "I can tell you, he's working it. You watch the individual periods he's doing, those techniques he's trying to improve, it's impressive. And he wants to learn more of this offense. We watch the amount we're teaching, because he's doing so much to get better. It's interesting watching. He's a bright kid, and he's constantly hungry for more, which is nice."
Jake Locker, No. 8 pick, Tennessee Titans
Locker didn't get the benefit of playing much last year, but two things are important to note. First, the Titans are thrilled with how Matt Hasselbeck has mentored the young quarterback. And second, Locker will have every opportunity to be the starter this year. Mike Munchak told me a couple days ago it's wide open, and it's "much easier to name a quarterback" based on the relationship the two have, but the sense I get is a tie would go to Locker.
"These two guys are competitive and they understand no one's going to be given the job," Munchak said. "We're gonna let it play out, that's what you do in these situations. As a staff, you hope it becomes obvious fairly early on, and hope it doesn't take until the last week of camp, because someone has to play. The negative is the longer it goes, the harder it is to build. But I think these guys can handle it."
In limited time, Locker actually posted the best passer rating of all the rookies. But he doesn't have the body of work of the other three first-rounders, or draft classmates Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates. With Locker, like with Newton, there's fundamental fine-tuning to do, and his accuracy from the pocket needs work. But the Titans seem to like what they have.
"He played last preseason, and then he didn't really play for 10, 12 weeks," Munchak said. "And he had to go against Atlanta and the Saints in the last five weeks, and he played at a high level. He came in at crunch time, and handled it and got better. He learned from Matt, and he prepared for every Sunday like he was starting. He was always asking questions, and Hasselbeck was huge there, too. It made us feel great, seeing how he came in and performed under pressure."
Blaine Gabbert, No. 10 pick, Jacksonville Jaguars
Conversely, there won't a be a quarterback competition at Jaguars camp, something Mike Mularkey made crystal clear over the phone on Monday morning: "No, it's not (a competition). Blaine's our starting quarterback." The fact that's even a question illustrates the criticism Gabbert's absorbed, following a rookie year in which he finished dead last among 33 qualifiers in passer rating. In fact, it's his ability to handle that criticism that Mularkey really likes.
"I give him credit for handling the negativity -- I haven't seen it affect him," Mularkey said. "It'd be easy to go into a shell, worry about perception. He has a lot of confidence and he doesn't let outside sources influence that. That's hard to do in this business, especially now with all this Facebook and Twitter. There's so much more pressure on him, but he's been good. I'm a big body-language reader, and on the practice field, the cafeteria, in the meetings, he has a confidence about him. We feel good about him."
That said, the Jaguars need confidence to translate into performance. Mularkey's staff should help. He worked with Matt Ryan in Atlanta, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski worked with a young Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was with Josh Freeman in Tampa. Having that backlog should help, and Mularkey's quick to note Gabbert came into the NFL two years younger than Ryan. As for specifics, like with Newton, Gabbert is still transitioning from being a spread QB in college.
"I've seen improvement over the short time I've been with him, and (in the spring) you get coaching and teaching in a less stressful environment," Mularkey said. "We're working on some of the fundamentals in his drops now. Not saying that he was taught it wrong, but every coach has their beliefs. None of them are wrong, but we need to be on the same page on some of those things, and we already started working on that in April. Primarily, it's his drops and balance in the pocket."
Christian Ponder, No. 12 pick, Minnesota Vikings
Ponder's numbers weren't much better than Gabbert's in 2011: He ranked 30th of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating. But he also had less help than his classmates, and the drafting of Matt Kalil is expected to be a start in mitigating the beating he took last fall (30 sacks in 10 starts) after taking the reins from Donovan McNabb in late October. The positive, for Minnesota, is that a lot of the work detailed above for the other quarterbacks isn't as necessary for Ponder because of his background.
"He was one of the guys we identified early on (in 2011) as being relatively ready to play in the NFL," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "He had been asked to perform a lot of pro duties at Florida State. We didn't have to teach him to take a snap, perform a play-action pass. He had that training, so he was ready to learn our system."
The focus now might be reversed. Ponder will continue working on the Vikings offense, of course. But looking at how defenses picked him off 13 times in those 10 starts last year -- and learning to counterpunch -- might be most important for this particular guy to stem his struggles.
"It's been exciting to have him engaged here in our offseason program," Musgrave said. "It's his first time through it. He has no idea what a minicamp is. He has no idea what an OTA is. But he does know how a real NFL game goes against a real NFL defense, so we have a lot to work on. I know he's looking forward to it."
At this point, the outside-the-first-round crew starts and ends with Andy Dalton, who got a new bodyguard (lineman Kevin Zeitler) and big-bodied target (Mohamed Sanu) in the draft, and has an exceptional working relationship with his offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden.
For Houston's T.J. Yates, after last year's playoff run, it's back to the bench for more development behind Matt Schaub, with another chance likely depending on the starter's health. And while Alex Smith's new three-year, $24 million deal could be seen as bad news for Colin Kaepernick, the contract itself is a lot like Matt Flynn's in Seattle -- it's starter money, but hardly marries the club to the quarterback.
Kaepernick's opportunities, at least for the time being, aren't the same as most of those listed above. But his circumstance this spring does carry a significant similarity: For this particular class, the freshman-to-sophomore spring is vital. And for all we know now, what comes out of it could have a serious impact on what happens come fall.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer