Newton, Rivera could start fast in 2014


Cam Newton's best year was his rookie season (stats-wise), with no minicamps, no OTAs, no long-term comfort level with his receivers. Sound familiar? Defenses have film to study, but won't it change things a little with a new receiving corps? Is this a positive or just wishful thinking? – Donald in Asheville, N.C.

There are some positives that can come out of Newton's recent ankle surgery that is expected to keep him off the practice field until training camp. Just like defenses benefited from a season's worth of tape following Newton's remarkable rookie campaign of 2011, Newton can benefit from viewing the next three months from a unique point of view.

"He's going to get a different perspective on preparation, a different perspective on learning," head coach Ron Rivera said at the recent NFL Annual Meeting. "He'll sit back and he'll watch things. And he'll be called upon to talk to the guys as they're doing things. He's going to have to develop that rapport with our offense from a different perspective."

The offseason before Newton's rookie season didn't even include that level of interaction, when a work stoppage wiped out virtually all offseason preparation until training camp. Even so, Newton set numerous records, was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

It was quite a debut season, but if you ask me, Newton's quarterback-record 14 rushing touchdowns were what made his rookie season really stand out. I'd argue that each of Newton's seasons has been better than the previous one, and I expect him to find a way to continue that trend even with limited snaps this offseason.

With all of the offseason upheaval and turnover, should Panthers fans expect a Ron Rivera signature slow start and white-hot finish? Or do the Panthers have what it takes right now to come out and send an early message that we are a force to be reckoned with? – Nick in Greensboro, N.C.

The Panthers have followed slow starts with fast finishes in each of Rivera's three seasons, but in 2013 the slow start was shorter and the fast finish was longer. Rivera's first two teams both started 2-8, but the first one finished 4-2 and the second one finished 5-1. Last year's team began 1-3 but then went 11-1 the rest of the way.

I believe Rivera and the Panthers turned the corner in 2013 and became a team that knows how to win close games. Two of the three losses to open last season were nail-biters. Then the legend of "Riverboat Ron" was born, and the Panthers became nearly unbeatable in close games. I'm not going to sit here having not seen the schedule and predict with confidence that Carolina will finally start a season strong, but I do believe that like last season, the pieces are in place for that to potentially happen.

I saw something about some possible compensatory draft picks for all the free agents we lost. Any thoughts on that? What rounds and how many could we potentially get? – Dakota in Washington, D.C.

That is a possibility – for the 2015 NFL Draft. Compensatory picks for next month's draft have already been awarded, and the Panthers didn't get any. It wasn't a surprise, because the 32 compensatory picks – which are added at the end of rounds 3-7 – are awarded based on a formula that weighs the free agents a team lost the previous season against the free agents the team acquired. The Panthers had a significant list of 2013 free agent signings who performed well last year – players like Ted Ginn and Mike Mitchell – so they weren't awarded any additional picks. Ginn, Mitchell and some other notable contributors signed elsewhere this offseason, meaning compensatory picks are a possibility next year. However, I expect several of the Panthers' free agent acquisitions – players like Jerricho Cotchery and Antoine Cason - to perform well in 2014, so it could be a wash.

What is the status of Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila? We need offensive line help, and these guys coming back could be a plus. – Gene in Matthews, N.C.

Staff writer Max Henson recently caught up with both Silatolu and Kugbila and heard some encouraging news about their returns from injury. You can check it out here. Thanks for the question.

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