SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- "If you could be any animal for two weeks, which one would you pick?"
If the pressure of a "sophomore slump" is weighing on the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, he sure does a great job of disguising it.
Here are five observations about Newton from my visit:
1. He's HUGE!
That is the very first thing you notice when you see Newton in person. He has the physique of an NFL defensive end. His shoulders are incredibly broad and his lower body is powerfully constructed. It is very easy to see why he is such a nightmare for defenders to tackle in the open field. Most scrambling quarterbacks can only pick up yards with speed or elusiveness, but Newton adds the element of power.
2. His touch and accuracy are much better.
Big-armed quarterbacks often have trouble varying ball speed. Newton has made major progress from his rookie season in this area. During practice, he eased off the gas on underneath throws and his accuracy improved as a result. When he did need to fit the ball into a tight window down the field, he was able to crank up the velocity, but he's beginning to understand that the fastball isn't always required.
3. Newton's developing very good chemistry with third-year wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
Newton repeatedly hooked up with LaFell during every portion of practice. The young receiver was more fluid as a route-runner than he's been in the past and he was attacking the ball in the air. There is no disputing Steve Smith's status as the clear No. 1 weapon in this passing game, but I expect LaFell to have a breakout season in 2012. He finished last season with 36 catches for 613 yards and three touchdowns. As long he stays healthy, I can see him approaching the 1,000-yard mark this year.
4. He's flanked by arguably the deepest running-back stable in the NFL.
There are several teams with solid depth in the backfield, but I'd take the collection of runners in Carolina over any other combination in the league. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been a dynamic pairing over the last few seasons, and now they've added a human bowling ball in Mike Tolbert. The Panthers' ability to effectively run the ball is going to make their play-action passing game extremely difficult to defend. Opposing defenses are going to need their safeties to help in run support, and that is going to create a lot of one-on-one matchups down the field for Newton to exploit. Both Smith and LaFell, meanwhile, averaged more than 17 yards per catch in 2011; they should be even more dangerous in 2012.
5. Cam just loves to play the game of football.
I was very fortunate to be around Ray Lewis during my four years working with the Baltimore Ravens personnel department. Several different traits have made Lewis one of the greatest defenders in NFL history, but the one that stands out to me is his tremendous passion for the game. Newton shares that same love and joy. He might not be quite as intense as Lewis, but he has outstanding energy right from the moment he steps onto the practice field. He sets the tempo for this Carolina Panthers team, and his confidence and swagger have given this organization a new identity and hope for the future.