Those on a need-to-know basis were aware Cam Newton would participate more in Panthers’ practice Thursday than at any point since his offseason ankle surgery.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, the coaching staff and Newton were the only people who knew Newton would throw in three sets of 7-on-7 drills in the final minicamp practice.
“I think it just shows everybody, the team, that he’s coming, he’s getting ready and he’s working hard to get himself ready,” Rivera said. “Nobody expected him to be out here today, except for me, but it was good to see him out there and good for his teammates to see him out there.”
Newton admitted he was “sluggish” on the day, going 8-for-15 on passes. And just like in his three seasons as Carolina’s signal caller, most of his incompletions were high.
“My mind was moving faster than my body, but that comes with time,” Newton said. “I’m excited to get back out there. I’m not 100 percent yet but any progress is good progress for me.”
Rivera said Newton was cleared to participate in practice Wednesday by head trainer Ryan Vermillion. Rivera added he and the training staff are not going to push Newton “an iota” following March surgery to his left ankle to tighten loose ligaments.
Newton went 2-for-5 in the first session, and his first two passes were high incompletions. He did worse in the red zone the following session, going 1-for-5 including a pass that was dropped by Tiquan Underwood.
“He was a little high, a little eager,” Rivera said. “He talked about feeling like he had been cooped up and he got a chance to go out there and spread his wings a little bit. He made some good decisions, made the right reads but just didn’t deliver the ball where he needed to and that’ll come with time. The healthier he gets, the better he gets.”
In his final session, Newton went 5-for-5, spreading the ball around against a defense that seemed more lax than in the previous two.
“Just trying to make the next rep better than the last rep, that’s been my mentality up to this point,” said Newton, who plans to train with his receivers later this summer before training camp. “In the training room, having that mentality. Watching film with past practices trying to help Joe (Webb) and (Matt Blanchard) as well as (Derek Anderson) out, we’re all a wolf pack. That’s what we call ourselves. And we’re trying to stick together to sharpen each other’s blade.”
Benjamin made a leaping catch over cornerback Melvin White that made the offensive players in blue jerseys exclaim with ohhs and ahhs.
In a red zone drill marked fourth-and-5, Anderson threw a pass to Benjamin at the near sideline of the end zone. Benjamin jumped and grabbed the ball behind White’s head, then secured the ball by taking it behind his own head with two hands and tapping both feet in bounds.
“It’s something expected,” Benjamin said. “Like you say, forget about it and move on. It’s in the past now.”
Rivera called the play “exciting.”
“That’s part of why you bring the young man in,” Rivera said. “You draft him for a specific skill set. He can become a threat in the red zone and a threat for you on third down and have an immediate impact doing those things for us. It was good to see him do those things and good to see him work with Cam as well. I’m excited as to where he’s heading and what he can become for us.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was also pleased with the first-round pick’s catch.
“What goes through your mind are the possibilities,” Gettleman said. “If you can’t do it in practice, you’re not going to do it in the game. You look at the possibilities with his skills and what he’s capable of. It’s a confirmation of your college scouting and your evaluation process. It’s fun, obviously.”
But after the team signed him to a two-year extension recently, he’s ready to take on more of a role in the defensive backfield.
“I’m just feeling more comfortable with every rep I get here,” Jones said. “Being able to play a little more defense and contribute to the team a little more, although special teams is my primary deal, I’m very excited.”
Jones has been running with the second- and third-team defenses at minicamp. He played in a 4-2-5 defense at Texas Christian and was relegated to special teams in San Francisco, so Jones is still learning the position in Carolina’s system.