A list of the things that have gone right for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers this offseason wouldn't take a lot of time to compile. But even though free agency didn't go as planned and Newton required an unscheduled session under the knife, there are many reasons why he shouldn't miss a beat in the 2014 season.
In fact, Newton may thrive—becoming one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Panthers were hoping rest would heal Newton's left ankle, an injury that not only had nagged the quarterback all the way back to his college days but was exacerbated by a Week 16 flareup against the New Orleans Saints. Rest wasn't enough, though, and Newton underwent surgery on March 19 to tighten some ligaments in that ankle, according to David Newton of ESPN.com.
While it would have been optimal for Newton to have the procedure well before March, his four-month timetable for return still promises a return prior to the regular season. Newton hasn't begun working with the Panthers without restrictions, but he has already been throwing the football and seems ahead of schedule.
Newton's ankle surgery wasn't the only speed bump of the offseason.
Not only did the Panthers part ways with wide receiver Steve Smith, the longtime heart and soul of Carolina's offense, every wide receiver who caught a pass from Newton in 2013 left the team. As if that wasn't bad enough, Newton's rock at left tackle, Jordan Gross, retired, leaving a huge question mark regarding pass protection in 2014.
Without a receiving corps he's comfortable with and deprived of a proven left tackle, there are still signs Newton will have success under center next season.
|First 4 Games||1-3||57.48%||6/5||78.4|
|Last 12 Games||11-1||63.29%||18/8||92.6|
Credit: Pro Football Reference
Newton showed tremendous growth during the 2013 season. It would have been very easy for him to look at Carolina's 1-3 record through four weeks of the season and become depressed. He had thrown just six touchdown passes and five interceptions, posted a passer rating of 78.4 and completed just 57.5 percent of his passes.
Instead, Newton led the Panthers on an eight-game winning streak and improved his numbers across the board. Most impressive was the improvement in his touchdown-to-interception ratio, a figure that went from 1.2 to 2.25 from his first four games through his final 12.
That kind of growth during the 2013 season, mirroring Newton's growth from his first days as a professional up to now, showed a quarterback with three years' worth of experience and a ton of upside. Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway spoke to David Newton of ESPN.com recently and echoed the sentiment that Newton's growth could lead to much, much more:
I think he's a tremendous athlete. He just continues to get better and better. And you look at what he did last year and the strides that he's made, he's going to make another big jump this year.
Just as a quarterback having been there, the things that you see from your first to second to third year are always big jumps, so he's going to continue to get better. He's got all the ability to be a great one.
Jumps from Year 2 to Year 3 for Newton included an improved completion percentage (57.7 percent to 61.7), an addition of five touchdown passes (19 to 24) and a passer rating that climbed from 86.2 to 88.8. All three marks were career highs.
As Newton should grow in 2014, just like he's done in every season since entering the league, there are some promising areas within the Carolina offense that should help him out.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said during OTAs that the Panthers, with the addition of Ed Dickson, could start utilizing more two-tight end sets:
It's a personnel group I believe in. It poses a lot of problems for defensive fronts. With an extra tight end in the game, you can do so many different things. Depending on who the tight end is, you can line him up as a fullback, as another wide receiver or as a wing tight end. It's going to give us a lot more versatility with what we do.
This is an offensive trend that has helped teams methodically move the ball down the field and could fit into Newton's repertoire perfectly.
As well, according to Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer, running back Jonathan Stewart may be on the brink of a healthy 2014 season. If Stewart is healthy in 2014 and joins Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams in a stacked backfield, the Carolina running game will be potent. That will greatly aid Newton's ability to throw the football as teams focus on stopping the run.
Don't count Newton out in 2014 just because he's recovering from ankle surgery and has lost weapons along his offensive line and in the receiving corps. Newton is a guy who's thrived with less than stellar talent around him in the past.
With another year's worth of experience, there’s no reason why Newton can't continue to flourish.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.