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What We Learned: Rivera's Combine Comments

Posted Feb 25, 2016

Head coach Ron Rivera expecting more improvement from quarterback Cam Newton; cornerback Bene Benwikere will get opportunity to earn starting role on outside.


1. PANTHERS PLAN ON NEWTON BEING EVEN BETTER IN 2016:
With quarterback Cam Newton back to full health last offseason, the Panthers came up with a specific plan for his continued development that included among other things a focus on red zone production.

Come the regular season, all Newton did was throw for 24 touchdowns against zero interceptions in the red zone to help the Panthers lead the NFL in scoring and help himself to league MVP.

So it’s not surprising that Rivera said the Panthers will look to repeat last year’s offseason approach, with different, still-to-be-determined points of emphasis.

"Giving him something to target is one of the things that really helps motivate him," Rivera said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "He’ll have his idea of what he needs to work on, and both (offensive coordinator) Mike (Shula) and (quarterbacks coach) Kenny (Dorsey) will put together a list of things they would like to see him improve on. It worked last year."

Newton was nearly flawless last season. If there’s any area for improvement that stands out, perhaps it’s completion percentage – he was one of seven primary starters under 60 percent. Clearly, though, Newton still managed to make ends meet.

2. RIVERA APPRECIATES HIS COORDINATORS: When Rivera took over as Panthers head coach prior to the 2011 season, Shula was 12 years removed from last being an offensive coordinator, and Sean McDermott had just been let go from his role as Eagles defensive coordinator.

Last season, they were two of the best coordinators in the game.

"Kudos to what Mike and his staff does and the way they game-plan and prepare those guys," Rivera said. "Sean, he’s built this defense. He controls the defense. I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished."

Rivera hired Shula as quarterbacks coach in 2011 but promoted him to offensive coordinator prior to the 2013 season when Rob Chudzinski left for the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns. The Panthers have made the playoffs each of Shula’s three seasons in the role.

It looked like a distinct possibility that McDermott might leave for his first head coaching job after producing a top-10 defense for the fourth consecutive season.

"I am surprised that I still have him, to a degree," Rivera said. "I understand that when you go as far as we did in the playoffs, it’s going to eliminate some opportunities. I know how he feels.

"I do think he’s ready. He’s had a great career as a coordinator for us."

3. RIVERA ENCOURAGED BY KUECHLY RECOVERY: One of the players most responsible for McDermott’s run of success is recovering nicely from offseason surgery.

Rivera confirmed that linebacker Luke Kuechly had undergone surgery for a partially torn labrum as widely reported and that he should be ready for training camp after a rehab period of approximately five months.

"My understanding is Luke’s surgery went well. He’s started his recovery, and he’s been working on his rehab," Rivera said. "Everything went well, and we should get him back in time for training camp."

Rivera, like everyone else, was impressed by how well Kuechly played late in the season with the injury.

"Having the sleeve on (the shoulder) really helped his performance," Rivera said. "When you go in a situation like that, the first question how ask is, ‘If he plays with it, will he do any more damage?’ The answer was no."

4. BENWIKERE FIGURES INTO OUTSIDE CORNER EQUATION: Josh Norman and Charles Tillman, the Panthers’ two starting outside cornerbacks last season, are potential unrestricted free agents. While signs point to Norman playing for the Panthers next season, things have been quiet on Tillman, a veteran of 13 NFL seasons who missed the playoffs with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Rivera indicated that third-year cornerback Bene Benwikere, who has split time between outside and nickel his first two seasons, will concentrate on the outside once he returns from a leg injury of his own that sidelined him for the final three games of the regular season and all of the postseason.

"I think the plan with him is to keep him as a one-position guy. He did some really nice things when he had the opportunity to play on the outside, and we’re going to see how he is when he gets back," Rivera said. "We’ll see how he’s doing. I know he’s finally out of the boot, and they’ve got him moving around a little bit, but I don’t know what that means in terms of his availability yet."