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Cam Newton's offseason growth draws praise from Ron Rivera

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On the day before the Carolina Panthers held their final team-sanctioned offseason activity until they report for training camp July 24, quarterback Cam Newton delivered an eye-opening performance that will resonate, perhaps deservedly, very little.

Only a few dozen spectators saw it. It happened in June. And players weren't even wearing pads. So no, this isn't an attempt to make more out of something than is appropriate. But might there have been a dose of quiet foreshadowing?

Hey, just toss it in the back of your mind until the season starts.

"(Wednesday) was about as good as I've seen (Newton), as far as practice goes," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday, apparently still impressed enough to mention it twice one day later.

That's about as solid an endorsement as you'll get from a head coach sending his team into a five-week break. And it's an example of the optimism Rivera has for the 2015 season, given everything else that he said around that single sentence.

Newton, for his part, said he believes this collection of wide receivers has been more competitive this offseason than any group he had in his first four seasons. So is his success in this year's offseason workouts the result of having more weapons? Or does Newton deserve the bulk of credit for his own improvements?

Both are true, for certain. But there's a good case to be made for the latter.

"He took some really big steps this year," Rivera said of his franchise quarterback, who signed a five-year, $103.8 million extension earlier this month.

For starters, Newton is healthy. (Last year, he missed the whole offseason after undergoing surgery in March to repair ankle ligaments.) But beyond that obvious point, Rivera believes Newton's continued experience in the league is allowing him the opportunity to work on more nuanced improvements in the offseason.

"Let's not forget: He's a young man," Rivera said. "He came into this league after playing just one year of college football. He wasn't as advanced as guys like Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck, who played three or four seasons."

While not a perfect argument, given that Newton has also had an extra year in the NFL to hone his skills, Rivera makes a point: We often expect Newton to play like a far more experienced vet than his "younger" counterparts. To Rivera's point about collegiate experience: Newton threw 292 passes in college. Luck threw 1,064. Wilson threw 1,489.

But before this becomes a conversation about Newton and other quarterbacks, it's worth focusing instead on Newton alone. Because Rivera's broader perspective is more about the idea of Newton finally graduating from the phase of his career in which he spends offseasons focused on more elementary fundamentals.

Take, for example, Newton's recent focus with Carolina quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey. In two specific ways, the Panthers and Newton himself seem to be recognizing that the QB's strengths, while valuable, can also lead to potential weaknesses in his game. This translates to footwork and decision-making.

Let's start with footwork. Because Newton has such incredible arm strength, he is capable of making massive throws downfield without setting his feet. On the surface, that sounds great -- almost like a basketball player being able to pull up for a three-point shot with no time to square to the basket. Newton, though, isn't merely tossing a football 23 feet on these occasions, and his accuracy can be hindered by those big distances.

"(Dorsey and offensive coordinator Mike Shula) want him to get his feet in the proper position -- then throw the ball," Rivera said. "You do see the difference."

Said Newton: "It's all about footwork and trusting the protection."

As it pertains to Newton's decision-making skills, coaches again want to make sure Newton doesn't allow his physical assets to become handicaps. Given how often Newton looks downfield to make the deep throws, it's easy to wonder why the Panthers don't add more safety valves (receivers running shorter routes) to help give Newton options. But Rivera believes those "safety valves" already exist. Instead, again, this is about making Newton realize there are benefits to his bulk -- and potential detriments.

"He wants to make the play downfield," Rivera said. "He likes the splash play. And with his ability to stay upright, I think he tends to stick with a guy for too long.

"He's learning, 'If I don't have it right now, let me give it to one of these guys who can catch it right now.' We've got guys who can make plays. You've seen it during offseason practices. He's learning and understanding that part of the offense."

In past years, the Panthers and Newton were so focused on simply getting Newton up to speed for the NFL, they weren't likely viewing his size/strength combo as anything more than his greatest asset. Now, with more time to work with him, and a clear willingness on his part to buy into the process, this nuance could pay major dividends.

So was Wednesday's excellent practice from Newton just a nice day of work in June? Or was it something greater than that -- something that perhaps suggested an offseason of increased focused might be paying off?

We'll have to wait a few months to find out. Once the pads are on. Once the pass rush is coming. Once the throws really matter. But for now, consider this a good, optimistic sign for Newton. Consider it a bright spot for the Panthers.

"I'm always trying to better myself in a way that might go noticed or unnoticed," Newton said Thursday. "For me, accuracy and consistency is key. I'm working with coaches and players so we're all on the same page. I'm not going to put any standards on where we are right now -- I just know we had an unbelievable camp.

"This was one of our better camps, I believe."

In June, that's really all you can ask for.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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