For a guy who, at times in 2015, appeared to be having the most fun of anybody, it was a little jarring to see Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton appear so morose by the end of 2016.
“We had a long, long run,” he said, after a Christmas Eve whupping administered by Atlanta. “It’s time for guys to have a sabbatical, so to speak, and just get away from it.”
It was understandable, albeit sobering. Newton took an absolute beating in 2016 as his offensive linemen dropped swiftly and often thanks to a vicious set of injuries. He suffered a concussion early in the year, and a partially torn rotator cuff near the end of it.
He was frustrated with a couple of very notable – and noticeable – non-calls on questionable hits. He had the worst statistical performance of his career as a part of a struggling offense, and the team finished with an unremarkable 6-10 record.
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And those non-calls, Newton said, were taking the fun out of the game.
But a new season is approaching, and with it, new talent. Here are five options – possibly obtainable by the Panthers in any of the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft – who could make football fun for Newton again.
Leonard Fournette or Christian McCaffrey
These two running backs are the subject of a hot local debate as the Panthers inch closer to their No. 8 overall pick. Both are great fits for Carolina – but in different ways.
Fournette (LSU) is the traditional power back, with the crushing run style Carolina has favored with current back Jonathan Stewart and even at times with Newton. But to preserve Newton’s body and with Stewart’s career waning, a superstar-in-the-making such as Fournette could be everything Newton needs to find his mojo again.
McCaffrey (Stanford) offers twists in just about every direction. He is extremely effective as a pass catcher from anywhere on the field, and a tempting option for a quarterback who takes pleasure in wrapping defensive players in knots. How could McCaffrey, a player for whom an entire defense has to plan, not be the go-to gadget for Newton?
Not having an offensive line constantly being restructured takes a lot of load off a quarterback. With the status of former starting left tackle Michael Oher in question, the Panthers need some depth on a line ravaged by injuries last season. Dawkins, a left tackle from Temple, has played guard as well and adds backup versatility. He is also a prospect the Panthers wouldn’t have to reach for in the draft – and general manager Dave Gettleman was adamant he won’t reach.
O.J. Howard or Evan Engram
A 12-personnel set is a delicious offensive attack when used effectively. With two tight ends, a running back and two receivers, Newton has a ton of options, both run and pass. Prolific pass-catching tight ends such as Howard (a probable top-10 pick from Alabama) and Engram (potentially a second-rounder out of Ole Miss) who are also skilled blockers can pair nicely with future Hall of Famer Greg Olsen – and the last time Carolina had a second effective tight end (Jeremy Shockey), Newton had a record-breaking rookie season.
Zay Jones, Chris Godwin or Taywan Taylor
While the Panthers may not be in draft position to snag any of these high-rising receivers, their prototype exists in abundance in this draft. They are receivers who excel in their routes and in separating from coverage – something nearly every wideout on the Panthers roster struggled to do in 2016. They can also play both inside and out, meaning Newton won’t have to worry about the long-developing routes that the team continued to use for big-and-tall receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess – which often failed behind a patchwork line that left Newton with little time to throw. Their separation ability and speed could bring Newton out of passer purgatory.
Let’s say a stellar defensive prospect (ahem, Solomon Thomas) is available to the Panthers at No. 8, and let’s say Gettleman isn’t able to help himself and snaps him up. Some resuscitation would still be needed on offense, and it would probably be at running back.
So how about Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel? He was an all-purpose player in college, like McCaffrey. Unlike McCaffrey, he is a master of none – hence the second-and-later round projections. Still, with a little polish, the blazing-fast Samuel could pose a threat as a complement to Stewart and a threat in the slot.