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Cam Newton's growth has Carolina Panthers high on QB's future

Ankle surgery limited what Cam Newton could do physically this spring, but it put no such constraints on the progress the Carolina Panthers quarterback could make mentally.

And with 10 weeks of offseason work now in the books, what head coach Ron Rivera sees is a 25-year-old who's growing up. Soon, Newton will be ready to display that growth on the practice field, more so than he did in limited work last week. Eventually, the idea is for it to show up on Sundays in the fall.

"Over the last 10 weeks, we're seeing Cam maturing, and doing things in other ways to contribute and improve," Rivera said as he headed out to the final practice of the spring last Thursday. "It got to the point where Cam was installing things. He led the meetings. He was sitting with the receivers, the tight ends and helping them, not just standing next to (offensive coordinator Mike Shula). You see stuff now you didn't see before."

Part of this story is about how Newton is handling success heading into his fourth year in the NFL.

Last year, he posted career highs (though the sample size is admittedly small) in touchdown passes (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8) while leading all quarterbacks in rushing (585 yards) and spurring a Panther revival that churned out 12 wins and resulted in a playoff appearance. Rivera, who had been on the hot seat as recently as last October after a 1-3 start, landed a three-year extension in January, and the perception of Newton was transformed.

Another part is about how Newton is handling adversity.

Things have been decidedly rockier for Carolina since its season ended with a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs, starting with the aforementioned surgery on Newton's left ankle in March. The cap-strapped Panthers also had to say goodbye to their top four receivers (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon) while an 11-year starter on the offensive line (left tackle Jordan Gross) retired.

Across the league, contract situations involving signal-callers like Jay Cutler (who signed a seven-year, $126 million extension with the Chicago Bears in January), Colin Kaepernick (who recently inked an extension with the Niners) and Andy Dalton and Alex Smith (who are both unsigned entering the final years of pacts with the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively) have raised the question of how to define a franchise quarterback. Last year, as Newton won consistently at the NFL level for the first time, he showed signs of being one. Now, given the attrition around him, the Panthers really need Newton to take those final steps.

"That's the truth of the matter here; what franchise quarterback can you look at and say, 'That's not really his team?' " Rivera said. "That's the thing. It's not like he needs to lead all 52 guys all the time. We've got (linebacker) Luke (Kuechly) on the other side of the ball. (Center) Ryan Kalil, (linebacker) Thomas Davis; we have a plethora of tremendous leaders. But sure, that's what we're looking for. It should be his team."

For Newton, leadership has always started with his play, which he's been working on, even if he can't cut loose yet. The coaches have stayed on him regarding his base fundamentals -- his footwork, in particular -- and expect him to keep on top of those things over the next few weeks.

There's a more macro element they've addressed, as well. Newton, who has always had the ability to impose his will on the field, was drilled in the early portion of his career on learning to manage games. The idea now is to begin to produce more force-of-nature moments again while maintaining the responsible quarterback play he's been taught. To Rivera, the four game-winning drives Newton led over the final eight games of the 2013 regular season were a good sign as to where he could take things next.

"I think it's great when a guy can manage a game," Rivera said. "But there comes a point where you have to make a play. He does that. He made some great plays, he had some teammates make great catches, great runs. But he's the trigger guy, and that's part of his growth. ... The one thing you don't ever want to do is put it all on one guy. That becomes hard. We want him to sense it -- It's time to make a play."

And a good piece will come by necessity. The same way the Packers leaned on Aaron Rodgers during portions of 2013 to make up for the defection of Greg Jennings, and the same way the Patriots asked more of Tom Brady with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez suddenly out of the picture, the Panthers now need Newton to help keep off-field losses from costing the team on-field wins.

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So he'll be helping to break in a new left tackle, either Nate Chandler or Byron Bell. He'll also be getting veteran receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant up to speed on the Carolina offense and trying to accelerate the development of first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

There is, of course, Newton's lingeringcontract situation -- the quarterback has just two years left on his current deal. When Rivera was asked if the situation was worrisome, he responded, "Not for me. It's something they'll work out."

When they do, it'll be affirmation that the Panthers are ready to move forward with what they started with the first overall selection of the 2011 NFL Draft -- with Newton as their franchise quarterback heading into a season in which they need one in every sense of the term.

"If we have to win a game not because of him, but with him, that's fine," Rivera said. "But we need him to win some games for us, too. And that's part of growth. That's part of becoming a franchise quarterback."

It's hard to become one in April and May and June. But it's pretty clear that, despite an injury that's kept him from doing much physically, Newton keeps taking steps in that direction.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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