CHARLOTTE – It's been a challenging start to the season for quarterback Cam Newton, but he's certainly answering the call.
So much so that head coach Ron Rivera said Thursday he thinks Newton is playing the best football of his four-year NFL career coming off offseason ankle surgery and a preseason rib injury.
"In a roundabout way, it's kind of a 'forward fumble' that he went through the surgery with the ankle when he did," Rivera said. "You look at his technique and the base fundamentals he uses and how he goes through things now, he's very proficient. This just may be that next big step that we were all looking for him to take."
Newton missed the first game of the season and wasn't unleashed as a runner until last week, but it seems to have helped his passing. He is completing 61.7 percent of his passes, has a 92.3 passer rating and has thrown just 0.4 interceptions per game – all on pace for season bests.
And, despite having limited mobility in the majority of his starts, Newton is being sacked 2.2 times per game on average. He was sacked 2.7 times per game last year.
MORE SNAPS FOR BERSIN? Wide receiver Brenton Bersin made one reception in each of Newton's first four games and then caught two passes last game, an upward trend that could continue Sunday at the Green Bay Packers. Bersin typically spells rookie standout Kelvin Benjamin from time-to-time, but Benjamin (concussion) could miss Sunday's game.
"I only get to sprinkle in a couple of plays a game. In football, you like to get in a rhythm, so hopefully I can get in there for a couple of plays in a row to get in a rhythm with Cam and the offense," Bersin said.
Of course, the idea of getting opportunities is all relative for Bersin, who was on the practice squad all of 2013.
"For him, it's always been about getting an opportunity," Rivera said. "The five guys we kept last year were just one step ahead. Now coming into it, he was one of our top five coming out of camp.
"He's a very smart football player. He's learning an awful lot and is doing a lot of good things."
JOE OF ALL TRADES: One player who could get his first opportunity of the season if Benjamin can't play is Joe Webb, the Panthers' third-string quarterback who has been running routes all week.
"I had a full year of it last year, so this isn't too much of a difference," said Webb, who played wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013 after playing quarterback his first three NFL seasons. "I've still got to sharpen up things, but (wide receivers) Coach Ricky (Proehl) has been doing a great job with me."
Rivera said that if Benjamin is inactive Sunday, activating Webb for the first time since Week 1 when he backed up quarterback Derek Anderson would be a distinct possibility.
Even though Webb has still worn one of the red practice jerseys assigned to quarterbacks at practice, he hasn't been untouchable and would welcome the opportunity to mix it up.
"They disregard that a lot of times with me, kind of run the red light on me when they see red," Webb said. "It would be fun to get to beat up on the defensive players, block them a little bit."
LONG ROAD BACK: The Panthers have had another receiver available to take reps this week with the return of De'Andre Presley, who has been on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list since the beginning of training camp but began practicing Wednesday.
"It means the world, and to be able to go out there and help this team to win would mean the world," said Presley, a former Appalachian State standout who had offseason surgery for a stress fracture in his left leg. "I already know coming in that I'm going to have to fight for everything, that nothing is going to be handed to me. My mentality is to fight for everything. Whatever they ask me to do, that's what I'm going to do."
Presley said he's 100 percent healthy but is working on getting his brain to catch up with his body. He has fielded some punts in practice in addition to getting some work at receiver. Presley can practice for up to three weeks before the Panthers have to decide whether to move him from PUP to the 53-man roster.
"We want to see how he does this week in terms of reconditioning and getting back to football, then we'll go from there," Rivera said. "De'Andre earned the opportunity based on what he did last year on the practice squad. He worked really hard and was having good OTAs when he developed the shin splint problem. Now we want to see what he has, and after three weeks we'll make the decision."
ON HIS WAY: With all the touchbacks these days, playing on the kickoff team often isn't very exciting, but rookie safety Tre Boston was thrilled to make his NFL debut in that role last week at Cincinnati.
"To me, it was way more than that. For me to finally get out there and dress was just such a blessing," Boston said. "Everybody has a dream as a little kid to play in an NFL game. I finally was able to accomplish number one, and now this week they're integrating me a little bit more."
Boston, a fourth-round draft choice from North Carolina, did not participate in the offseason workout program following hernia surgery and then missed most of training camp and the preseason with a groin injury.
"I feel great. I want to thank the organization for giving me as much time as they did to come back," Boston said. "I'm getting up to speed. Before, I was just getting mental reps. I missed probably 1,000 reps, so I'm trying to learn fast and play fast."