The main attraction didn’t disappoint.
As thousands of fans flocked to Joe Gibbs Stadium at Wofford College for the first night of Carolina Panthers training camp Thursday, all eyes were squarely focused on one man: quarterback Cam Newton.
Understandably so. After January shoulder surgery sidelined Newton for most of spring workouts, this was the first opportunity to watch him in full since that procedure. And while Newton wasn’t perfect, the Panthers couldn’t have asked for a much more encouraging first practice.
Specifically, he displayed a talent that we haven’t seen from him in a long time ...
Deep balls. Like, actual deep balls.
Thursday’s highlights were a pair of deep completions by Newton during team drills. On the first, wide receiver Curtis Samuel broke free over the top from cornerback James Bradberry, and Newton launched deep over the middle of the entire defense. The ball traveled about 35-40 yards in the air before dropping in Samuel’s clutches. All Samuel had to do at that point was run the rest of the way into the end zone — well, that and celebrate with a visibly-energetic Newton.
“Everything that we’ve been told, everything that we saw, just pointed to him being ready to go,” coach Ron Rivera said after practice. “It did a lot, not just for us, but for him. Uncorking one like that — just letting it go.”
The second deep completion came later in team drills, and that may have actually been the more impressive of Newton’s two deep passes. Newton again launched the ball 35-40 yards downfield, but this time, it was to a double-covered Chris Manhertz on a route to the right sideline. Even with safety Eric Reid draped all over him, Manhertz managed to corral the ball and stay with it as he fell to the grass.
Rivera said during move-in day Wednesday that the team would monitor Newton’s throws during camp. That way, they can better ensure he doesn’t have any lingering shoulder soreness or tightness. And while Newton was certainly on a pitch count during Thursday’s practice, quarterbacks coach Scott Turner also said that the team has confidence in where he stands right now.
“He’s healthy. He’s ready to go,” Turner said. “I think he looked good today.
“We did a couple of deep balls down the field, which was good to see ... I think he’s just happy to be out here with his guys.”
Turner estimated Newton threw about 40 passes each during the individual and team portions of Thursday’s practice, and of those passes, he only threw one interception -- to linebacker Shaq Thompson. Turner said that an open dialogue between Newton, coaches, and the team’s training staff are essential to ensuring that he doesn’t carry over any stiffness from the previous day’s practice.
“It’s always a tell to see how he is tomorrow morning,” Rivera reiterated. “But everything we’ve been told, he’s been working very hard at it. So very good to see.”
Even while monitoring Newton’s throws and ensuring his shoulder continues progressing, Turner stressed that there aren’t any physical limits on the quarterback within practice.
“There’s no limitations. He’s out there practicing just like any of our other guys,” Turner said.
“Last year was interesting because he was playing so well and he was feeling so good about it, and he was seeing everything so well. And then it got to the point where he could see it, but he physically couldn’t do it — and I don’t think that has ever happened to him in his life before. So that was a really frustrating period.
“For him to be back and healthy, that’s great.”
Participation and lineups
First-team offensive line: LT Daryl Williams, LG Greg Van Roten, C Matt Paradis, RG Trai Turner, RT Taylor Moton.
Rivera said during spring workouts that settling the offensive line was one of the team’s priorities in Spartanburg, and Thursday night offered the first step in that process. Specifically, tackle Daryl Williams got first-team reps at left tackle over second-round pick Greg Little, who played with the second-teamers. Williams previously saw snaps at left tackle during the spring, and Rivera said Wednesday the team intended to try him some at left guard, too.
“We’re most certainly going to continue with what we’re doing. We really liked what we saw today,” Rivera said. “It’s one of those things that, when you go through and evaluate everything, the thing with Daryl was always going to be the health.
“And as he got stronger and stronger through OTA’s and minicamp, talking with (run game) Coach Matsko, talking with (offensive coordinator Norv Turner), talking with (general manager Marty Hurney), we feel that this may be a real good positive step for us.”
With Williams at left tackle, that opened a spot for last year’s left guard, Greg Van Roten, to slot into the first-team as well. Van Roten was the Panthers’ only player in 2018 to play 100 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
First-team defense: DE Kawann Short, DT Dontari Poe, DE Gerald McCoy, EDGE Bruce Irvin, EDGE Mario Addison, LB Luke Kuechly, LB Shaq Thompson, CB James Bradberry, CB Donte Jackson, S Eric Reid, S Rashaan Gaulden.
That the Panthers began their first training camp practice in a 3-4 front that should come as no surprise. The team has preached becoming more multiple up front throughout the spring, and that carried over to Thursday night. McCoy especially was disruptive on the interior, consistently getting pressure on Newton.
At EDGE rusher, Irvin got the nod over first-round pick Brian Burns, who rotated in with the second-team. He and Addison alternated between rushing from a stand-up position and having their hands in the dirt.
As expected, Rashaan Gaulden got the first-team snaps at safety aside Eric Reid. Hurney said Wednesday that the team initially drafted Gaulden with the intention that he would play safety, but that he and Rivera expected Gaulden to also be in the mix at nickel cornerback throughout the season.
For now, Corn Elder got the first-team snaps at nickel when the Panthers weren’t playing their base defense. He had a pass deflection on a play targeted for DJ Moore.
Final practice notes
▪ Receiver DeAndrew White had one of the best plays of the day, a difficult sideline grab from Kyle Allen.
▪ Behind Newton, third-rounder Will Grier took the majority of the second-team snaps. Allen was third, with Taylor Heinicke as the fourth quarterback.
▪ On Thompson’s interception, defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Addison first tipped the pass into the air.
▪ Moore got first-team looks at punt returner, but receivers Rashad Ross and Terry Godwin also took reps.