Newton key to improving offense in 2014


How can Cam Newton improve in his fourth season as an NFL quarterback? – Alex in Sanborn, N.Y.

Newton took his game to a new level in 2013, establishing career bests with 24 touchdown passes, a 61.7-percent completion rate and a quarterback rating of 88.8. He also became the only player in NFL history to have 50 of more touchdown passes (64) and 25 or more rushing touchdowns (28) in any three-year span. It just happened to be his first three years.

For all the numbers, the most impressive one was Carolina's 12-4 record. Newton and the Panthers won six games his rookie year and seven his second year before becoming a playoff team in 2013. During the breakout season, Newton led four game-winning drives – twice as many as he directed his first two seasons.

Yet, Newton still has significant room for improvement, which should be seen as a positive rather than a slight. Newton is as dangerous as anyone to ever play the position when he gets out of the pocket, and he isn't exactly easy to handle in the pocket. That being said, he's still growing when it comes to execution in the pocket, from learning how to throw the ball away instead of taking sacks, to being more consistently accurate on his throws.

The next couple of "Ask Bryan" questions pertain to ways of helping Newton in those regards.

We have seen that when Cam has time in the pocket, he makes things happen. Shouldn't the Panthers beef up the offensive line in the draft and free agency? – Walt in Lenoir, N.C.

Newton has proven to be an effective pocket passer, but like everyone at his position, he's at his best when the offensive line protects him. Newton's line was in flux last season, especially at guard. Time will tell if the tackle position will be in transition this offseason, with starter Jordan Gross' future up in the air.

It's easy to forget that the line should immediately be "beefed up" by the return of starting left guard Amini Silatolu next season. The 2012 second-round draft pick appeared poised for a big year before a knee injury sidelined him in the fourth game of the season. Silatolu should be ready to roll when the Panthers' offseason program begins in April. The guard spot could also get a boost from Edmund Kugbila, a fourth-round pick in 2013 whose rookie season never got off the ground because of injuries.

Regardless of the depth of talent on the offensive line, general manager Dave "Hog Mollie" Gettleman will always be open to adding more talent in the trenches. It's a position group that is always valued during the draft by nearly every team. But Gettleman has also demonstrated a gift for identifying players that can help up front that don't necessarily come with a big price tag (i.e. Travelle Wharton, Geoff Hangartner, Chris Scott and Nate Chandler). One way or the other, with center Ryan Kalil as its anchor, expect Newton's line to improve in 2014.

I have noticed that when Cam misses passes, he misses them high. This offseason, do you think the Panthers will try to get taller receivers in the draft and free agency rather than trying to replace Steve Smith (which is impossible)? – Davis in Charlotte/Chapel Hill, N.C.

Well, I guess getting taller receivers is one way to combat high throws, but certainly the more effective approach is for Newton to continue to improve his mechanics.

As for the receiver spot, it should be an interesting offseason (as so often it is).  Three of the team's top four wide receivers in terms of catches – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon – are all potential unrestricted free agents, and difficult decisions regarding trio will shape what the Panthers do next. In addition, Smith isn't getting any younger, though I'm not sure based on his level of play that he's getting any older.

Carolina has drafted 16 wide receivers over the 19 drafts in team history but has picked one in the first round just once. Outside of the three drafts in which the Panthers didn't have a first-round pick, their No. 28 overall spot this year is the latest first-round choice they've entered the draft with and is a spot that could lend itself to considering a rare first-round wide receiver.

Or not. Stay tuned.

(And by the way Davis, I often wish I could be two places at one time.)

To my knowledge Cam Newton is the only player in the NFL currently wearing No. 1. Does he have to pay a fine to wear it, or is it an open number across all NFL rosters? Thanks. – Craig in Omaha, Neb.

Newton actually isn't the only NFL player wearing No. 1 but is the only quarterback currently wearing it and the only Panther to ever wear it. Punters and kickers are also allowed by NFL rules to wear the number, and three currently do (Tampa Bay kicker Lawrence Tynes, Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee and New York Jets punter Ryan Quigley). Wide receivers Alex Gillett of the Packers and Chuck Jacobs of the 49ers are listed as No. 1 on their teams' rosters but only because they wore it last year as practice squad players (which is allowed) and then signed future contracts after the season. They'll have to change their numbers if they make the 53-man roster.

Great players who have worn No. 1 through the years include Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and legendary Packers halfback Curly Lambeau – yes, as in Lambeau Field. Newton already has to be considered among the best players to ever wear No. 1 in the NFL, and he's only going to get better.

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