For months now, the Carolina Panthers have preached their recovery plan for Cam Newton as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery.
That plan, without the team offering any specific checkpoints or milestones, instead stressed an ending point: Newton as a full participant at training camp in July.
So... then what?
First, some context: Newton struggled with “frustrating” shoulder soreness and tightness over the second half of last year, culminating with him sitting out the final two regular-season games. Those shoulder issues stemmed not from any specific injury Newton sustained during the season, but rather from the buildup of scar tissue and cartilage damage following his 2017 surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff.
After the season, Newton had an arthroscopic procedure that was described to the Observer as a “clean-out” rather than to repair any specific injury. On Newton’s video blog, team physician Pat Connor — who performed the procedure — explained to the quarterback that the cartilage damage was much less severe than originally suspected.
Newton began throwing regulation-size footballs again during spring workouts, including a team livestream during minicamp in June. That was the first time the public had seen Newton throw since the Week 15 loss to New Orleans. He progressed from throwing to stationary targets one day, to shorter routes the next, and finally to intermediate routes 20-25 yards down the field.
Which brings us to the present, with Newton slated to be a full participant when training camp opens July 24 at Wofford College in Spartanburg...
The Panthers have long set training camp as their expectation for Newton’s full return. The hope is he can continue developing a camaraderie with young receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, as well as to rekindle his connection with running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen.
There are, of course, questions surrounding Newton’s backup — if any shoulder issues crop up again this season, that position becomes more pertinent — but how Newton looks at training camp will be the story of the summer.
The Panthers drafted a quarterback this offseason, Charlotte-area native Will Grier, for the first time since Newton entered the league. Grier, who played at Davidson Day, was a third-round pick out of West Virginia. Although he struggled somewhat in spring workouts, the backup job is still up for the taking.
To be decided in camp
Newton’s backup, clearly. Grier is competing with Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. Grier has draft pedigree on his side and is a great timing passer, but Heinicke was the most impressive of the three this spring. Both Heinicke and Allen started a game for the Panthers last season, and Allen especially took advantage of that opportunity with a Week 17 win over the Saints.
Underdog to watch
Grier and Allen were highly-touted as far back as high school. Heinicke is the least-heralded of the three, but he has experience working to his advantage. In addition to his one start last season in Week 16, Heinicke previously played in Norv Turner’s offense in Minnesota and has the high football IQ to prove it.
Also keep an eye on...
Kyle Allen. He threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns in his lone start last season, not to mention another score on the ground. The second-year player is still raw and not the most accurate passer, but has terrific arm strength and is the sort of young passer the team likes having around.
Three bold predictions
▪ Heinicke wins the backup job to begin the season, with Grier slotting in behind him as the No. 3 quarterback. The team should also stash Allen on the practice squad, but other teams might have interest in developing him further.
▪ Newton keeps up his pace from the start of the 2018 season and passes for at least 25 touchdowns, the second-most in any season of his career.
▪ Newton has led at least one fourth-quarter comeback every year of his career but 2016 — that continues in 2019, as he leads the team to two wins from behind.