The Carolina Panthers spent much of the offseason trying to make things easier on quarterback Cam Newton, who is coming off his second surgery in the past three years.
They spent $55.5 million on free agent tackle Matt Kalil to protect Newton’s blind side, and used their first two draft picks on Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to give Newton a different breed of play-maker.
But the evolution of the Panthers’ offense still will come down to the play of Newton, who followed up his MVP season of 2015 with a disappointing, injury-plagued 2016. Newton played the last several games with a partially torn rotator cuff, which he had surgically repaired in March after rest and rehabiliation didn’t heal it.
Newton has begun his throwing program and is expected to be ready for the start of training camp, where he’ll get his first work with McCaffrey and Samuel.
When there are only four QBs on the roster and one is two years removed from a MVP season, there aren’t many candidates for a breakout campaign. But Newton certainly qualifies as a bounce-back candidate. Newton finished with career lows in completion percentage (52.9) and passer rating in 2016, two categories that should be aided by the arrival of McCaffrey and Samuel. The goal is to scale way back on the zone-read and get the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly in the passing game, exposing him to fewer hits and allowing him to take the “layup” throws as Jerry Richardson advised.
To be decided in camp ...
The Panthers have carried three quarterbacks since Joe Webb arrived in 2014. Given Webb’s special teams value and versatility as an emergency receiver, it seems likely Webb again will make the team behind Newton and Derek Anderson. The only way that Webb would seemingly be in danger is if injuries at another position forced the Panthers to keep an extra lineman, for instance, for depth.
Underdog to watch
Garrett Gilbert was signed as an extra arm in March following Newton’s surgery. Gilbert is best known as freshman quarterback for Texas who replaced an injured Colt McCoy in the 2010 national championship game. Gilbert, on his fifth NFL team, is the son of Gale Gilbert, a former NFL quarterback and the only player in league history to be a part of five consecutive Super Bowl teams.
Three bold predictions
▪ Newton will complete 61 percent of his passes, nearly equalling his career high of 61.7 percent from 2013.
▪ Newton will finish with a career-low 80 carries, but will remain an effective runner near the goal line. Newton will score five rushing touchdowns to match his career-low totals from the 2014 and ’16 seasons.
▪ Newton has made the Pro Bowl in every odd year of his career, beginning as a rookie in 2011. That trend will continue in 2017 when Newton earns his fourth Pro Bowl berth.