CHARLOTTE — The progression of Cam Newton this spring is one reason coach Ron Rivera is budding with optimism as the Panthers continue preparation for the 2013 season.
The return of three starters from injuries doesn’t hurt his enthusiasm either.
Rivera said along with Newton’s steady improvement and the return of Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross and Jon Beason, the fact that the team is ahead of schedule with play-calling installation has him feeling good about the direction of the team seven weeks before it reports to training camp.
Rivera said the third-year quarterback continues to show improvement in practice and notices him building better relationships with his teammates.
“The nice thing you see and the thing I really like is the progression of our quarterback,” Rivera said Thursday after the conclusion of OTAs. “I think Cam has done a really good job. I think his rapport with the rest of the team has been really good. I’m seeing some things that really give you reason to be happy and be excited about who we can become as a football team.”
That includes the return of Kalil, Gross and Beason from injuries.
That trio has been to a combined eight Pro Bowls, but they’re just as valuable in the locker room where they’re considered three of the team’s biggest leaders.
Beason missed a dozen games with shoulder and knee issues last season, and has been working out hard on the side with trainers, running full speed and began participating in some individual drills this week. Beason said he should be “full go” by the start of training camp.
Kalil, who missed most of last season with a broken foot after unsuccessfully predicting a Carolina Super Bowl victory, and Gross participated in team drills this week at OTAs helping to lend some needed cohesiveness to an otherwise young offensive line.
“Any time you get your veteran leaders out there on the football field I think that’s a real big thing for your team,” Rivera said.
And Rivera likes what he’s seeing from the guy who lines up behind them.
Newton is in his third season running the same offensive system and Rivera said that comfort level is noticeable. While offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to join the Cleveland Browns, his replacement Mike Shula has said he doesn’t plan to change up the scheme, although he will simplify the verbiage in some calls.
With Newton having started all 32 games in two seasons, he’s well versed at the offense.
In fact, Rivera said the team finished OTAs ahead of schedule.
“Minicamp next week will be all about execution,” Rivera said. “All of the installations are in and we’ve gone through the things we wanted to go through. Now we will give the guys a chance to play fast and see how they do in minicamp.”
That Rivera feels Newton is developing a better rapport with his teammates is a good sign. He’s been criticized in the past for pouting on the sidelines, a source of frustration for teammates.
Newton said last week in a press conference that he wants to take on a bigger leadership role and, in fact, has his eyes set on becoming a team captain.
Carolina’s offensive captains for the past couple of seasons have been Gross and wide receiver Steve Smith.
“When you’re a team captain, that’s not just a patch on the jersey,” Newton said last week. “You’re holding yourself to a higher standard with being accountable. I’m going about it each and every day and trying to make that happen.”