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Contract signed, Newton aims to turn potential into production

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Cam Newton smiled to the hundreds of fans who cheered Saturday as he took the field for the first time with the Carolina Panthers.

And he doesn't feel like a No. 1 pick shortchanged by the NFL's new rookie compensation system.

Newton practiced one day after signing a four-year, $22 million deal with the Panthers. The fans at Gibbs Stadium began to cheer as they saw Newton in his red No. 1 jersey walk down the hill from the locker room, his arms around Panthers star running back DeAngelo Williams.

"Welcome to Carolina, Cam!" one shouted.

Newton was all smiles as he ran on the grass, holding his arm up in a No. 1 sign to acknowledge the cheers. Panthers supporters need something like Newton to celebrate after last year's dismal 2-14 finish. He hopes to bring them something special, starting this season.

Newton said how happy he was to be in Carolina and to be back to football. He also wasn't bothered by the rookie wage system, which set his incoming salary per the agreement between NFL owners and players.

Newton took a major financial hit as the draft's top selection, receiving $56 million or so less than St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's six-year, $78 million deal as the No. 1 pick last year.

"It really doesn't matter," Newton said. "Either way you look at it, I've still got more money than I've ever had."

Newton knows that if he reaches his potential on the football field, he'll make up any financial disparity later.

"In this league, they set standards," Newton said. "If you play the way they're predicting you to play, you're going to be all right either way it goes."

Newton was eager to take the field for his first practice at Wofford College later Saturday and said holding out was never an option, even before the NFL lockout. He spent the time away training, working out with Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith in some private sessions that proved to Newton the team has plenty of offense despite last year's awful showing.

Newton received offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's playbook in April during the short time a judge lifted the lockout. Newton has worked to learn what he can, but he knows he can't really progress until he gets back on the field. He'll wear No. 1 at Panthers camp with quarterback rival Jimmy Clausen wearing No. 2, the jersey number Newton wore at Auburn during the 14-0 BCS national championship season.

Newton said he and Clausen talked about him acquiring No. 2, but in the end believed it was best to start out fresh.

"Rightfully so, since it was his number," Newton said.

He and Clausen have a healthy, friendly relationship so far, and both understand that the quarterback competition will make each one better for the Panthers.

"I don't want to give off a situation where we hate each other's guts and we're just out there running over each other," Newton said. "Jimmy is helping me, and I hope I'm helping Jimmy. We want to bring out the best in each other."

Newton was the fan focus at workouts. Every task, no matter how simple, drew cheers. The crowd clapped and someone yelled, "Way to go, Cam!" on a routine handoff to Jonathan Stewart on Newton's first snap, drawing laughs from many Panthers.

A long sideline throw to Smith drew ooohs and shouts. Newton also had several incompletions, especially when the defense rushed. Afterward, he ran over to the stands and spent about 15 minutes signing shirts, football and posters as young fans screamed his name.

First-year Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the focus was about getting young players like Newton work.

"That's important. The young guys should take advantage of this," he said.

Carolina hopes those cheers continue into the regular season after the team set a franchise low in points scored in 2010. The 6-foot-5 Newton knows he'll have some help with that, starting with Smith.

The Panthers' sometimes prickly receiver had nothing but glowing reviews for Newton in their workouts, which apparently went a long way toward Smith wanting to remain with the team.

Both of Carolina's headliners in the backfield, Williams and Stewart, return, and the Panthers picked up tight end Greg Olsen in a trade with the Chicago Bears to bolster the receiving corps.

"I don't know about you guys, but I don't know that I've ever seen anyone like him," Olsen said of his new quarterback. "Watching him on TV is a whole lot different than seeing him in person. He just has that something about him, that confidence."

Newton hopes he can carry that through camp and into the regular season. He said he's prepared to work as hard as possible to show he's ready for the NFL.

"It's exciting just to be around the football atmosphere again," he said.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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