CHARLOTTE – Marty Hurney brought Cam Newton to Carolina with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, but the general manager wasn't around to see the maturation of the Panthers' new franchise quarterback.
Hurney and the Panthers parted ways seven weeks into Newton's second season. In the years that followed, Newton led the Panthers to three consecutive division titles. He was named NFL MVP in 2015 as Carolina claimed the NFC Championship and made its second ever Super Bowl appearance.
In 2017, Hurney returned as the team's interim GM, reuniting him with Newton. It was an up-and-down season offensively, but Hurney – now the full-time GM once again – relished the chance to see up close how much Newton had grown over the years.
"He's developed every year and he's still going to get better because of the approach he takes and how important it is to him," Hurney said. "That's who we saw coming out (for the 2011 draft). You saw the playmaking ability.
"Coming back this year, I saw a total maturity as far as when I had been with him last. You can see him mature in his approach and his command of all the things that we ask him to do on the field.
"The guy is a playmaker," Hurney added. "He makes the difference in games and you can win because of him. You can look at some games this year, look at the Detroit game – some of the throws he made, you just say, 'Wow.' There has been so many times over the years where he just affects the game in so many ways. His need, his desire to win, his competitive personality – to have that at the quarterback position is contagious. As long as we win, that's the only thing that matters to him. To have that approach and attitude at that position is invaluable."
Before selecting Newton first overall, the earliest the Panthers had ever selected was second back in 2002 when Hurney chose defensive end Julius Peppers.
Peppers, like Hurney, came back to Carolina in 2017 after several years away. But after 16 NFL seasons, the 38-year-old Peppers – who is not under contract for 2018 – remains undecided about continuing to play.
"I talked to Pep the day after the season ended and have not gotten to him again yet," Hurney said. "But I always take the approach – I think guys need time after the season ends. Pep is such an amazing person and an amazing player, you give him time. I think he knows how we feel and we'll try to communicate with guys at the right time. Things happen when they're going to happen."
Here are some additional thoughts from Hurney on particular Panthers:
On pending free agent kicker Graham Gano:"I mean, Graham missed one kick for us last year. He had a phenomenal year. He's definitely a guy that we want to get re-signed and is a priority, but as I said, this time of year it's hard to predict anything. It's just a fluid process day-to-day."
On veteran center Ryan Kalil, who has said the 2018 season will be his last: "In my mind, the way I look at Ryan Kalil is the guy makes a huge difference for our line with the communication and the way he makes other players better. He's the leader in that room. I think there is the importance that you see in what he brings to your team. When he came back the last four games, I thought he played well. He should just get better and stronger during the offseason. I think the importance of having him back is significant for us."
On Devin Funchess having moved into the No. 1 receiver role courtesy of the midseason Kelvin Benjamin trade and his future in that role: "The 'X' role that he moved over to is the role that really fits his skill set the best. Obviously he's got size and he's got good athletic ability for a guy at that position, and he's got the desire to be good. He's still growing. We've just scratched the surface with Devin. He is now in the position that really maximizes his skill set, and now we just want to see him continue to grow. It's very important to him, and you could see that in his approach. I thought you saw the improvement when he went over there full time; I think he progressed extremely well at the end of the year."
On running back Christian McCaffrey's capabilities: "His versatility is invaluable. I think he can run between the tackles. We put him in the slot. You look at the route he scored the touchdown on against New Orleans – I don't know that there's a lot of guys in the league that can run that route with that precision. His quickness is elite. I think he can play all over. He's smart and his versatility gives an offensive coordinator a lot of options with what he can do. He's a weapon. And we forget he was a rookie last year. He's only going to get better."