In Spartanburg on Sunday, perched on a high hill, standing at a fence, and looking over the practice field I saw the same Tweets you all did: "Newton is struggling", "Newton is throwing INTs" etc. I don't pretend to know what possesses some to try and rile up the fanbase, but I'm here to tell you on a Monday morning, one where I'm normally trying to put an optimistic spin on things, that you don't need to worry about Cam Newton; and I say that without needing to put a spin on the situation.
It's apropos that this weekend marked the start of the London Olympics, which we can hold in contrast to NFL training camp. When I was at the hotel room watching the games I tended to gravitate towards the swimming, and there was a common theme that kept popping up: The impetuous young swimmer who sets a blazing pace in their heat, only to dump so much of their energy that they finish sixth in the final. Meanwhile the cagy veteran who finished fourth early kept plenty in reserve and won a medal.
This weekend in Spartanburg we saw the gamut, from that impetuous young player, to the self-assured veteran, and for only his second year in the league Newton carried himself like a veteran. Part of this process is a tacit understanding that the first weekend of training camp isn't a time to lay it all on the line, and do everything you can to win a ten minute 11-on-11 drill. It's something we saw from every veteran. Do you really think Byron Bell could shut down Charles Johnson in a real game? If this were October would Sione Fua really get pad level on Ryan Kalil and turn him? Would Jon Beason be two yards from a ball carrier and let up so the OLB could make the play? Speak in generalizations and platitudes about how ‘Everyone needs to give 100% every day' if you like, and I'll keep writing you off as not really understanding the NFL. Training camp is a marathon, not a sprint-- and those guys who were fighting for jobs this weekend, who were going at full pace every drills, they will likely fade in ten days when they hit the wall of their tenth practice in less than two weeks.
More after the jump
I'll leave the chicken little, sky is falling, "ZOMG CAM IS THROWING PICKS!!!11!!" mentality to those with an agenda. What I saw from Newton was a player who, when trying, looked every bit as dynamic as we remember him. Particularly on Sunday I got a good look at his footwork, and it has definitely improved. His drop-backs are more natural, and his base is much more fluid. Cam is also stepping into his throws far better than last year, which you can tell is still a little unexpected for him. The ball is coming out far hotter than he's ready for, and it's scary to see him use about 70% of his energy to overthrow Steve Smith on a 45 yard deep ball by 10 yards. In time muscle memory will take over, and he'll know exactly how much arm he needs to put into that throw, but for now you still see him learning what he needs to do.
Newton looks far better on short routes. Yesterday he was doing a better job of anticipating his receivers, and getting the ball out of his hand during their break. Two passes particularly caught my eye-- one on a comeback to Louis Murphy, and another to Mike Tolbert in the flat. On both occasions Newton threw the ball far before they receivers were looking for the ball, and by the time they reached the timing point in their cut the ball was there, leading to solid gains.
The interceptions need to be addressed, and yesterday I saw two. The first an attempt to Steve Smith on a slant route. The ball hit Smitty right in the hands, and he failed to make the catch. The ball popped up a good five yards in the air, and Sherrod Martin made a fantastic break on the ball to get the tipped INT. The second was an intended pass over the middle where Newton completely failed to account for James Anderson who was sitting in the middle, and made an easy pick. Particularly on this second interception Newton looked like he locked onto a receiver for the entire route, and it wouldn't surprise me if they wanted him to force the pass no matter what.
There were plenty of occasions where Cam went through his full progression, but what stood out to me was an onus he placed on getting the ball to a running back, rather than taking off and running himself; Newton did that too, but there was a clear emphasis on him going through his entire progression before taking off.
Brandon LaFell had a polarizing day. Some thought he looked bad, but I didn't really see that. He had one bad drop early in the day, but more than made up for it throughout the session as he grabbed two really nice passes, and got stuck in the flat where he juked Haruki Nakamura and picked up 12 yards.
The standout receiver in yesterday's practice was Kealoha Pilares, who had a fantastic weekend overall. Pilares was fighting for the ball in the air, adjusting well to less than desirable passes, and on one key reception he adjusted to an under-thrown pass by Derek Anderson to slide in front of Charles Godfrey and nab the ball close to the ground. It wasn't a flashy play, but one you see every single Sunday, and those are the plays he needs to make.
Louis Murphy was given lots of reps, and the rapport he has with Newton is clear. Any time Cam wasn't working in a drill he was throwing off to the side and chatting with Murphy. These weren't times they were working on skills, just chatting and staying loose. This rapport carried onto the field as Murphy had yet another impressive practice where he caught the ball in traffic, under duress, and ran the route tree well.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for Seyi Ajirotutu, who had a pretty lackluster weekend. On Saturday it was Jaxon who picked up on him dogging it a little bit to get back to the huddle after plays, and while he picked up the pace on Sunday he still looked like the odd man out. He didn't move as quickly, or fluidly as I would have expected, and dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball from Jimmy Clausen.
For the App State fans out there you'll be happy to know that Armanti Edwards looked really solid yesterday. His cuts are getting better, and he made some tough catches. His main competition, Joe Adams, didn't get a lot of reps at WR yesterday.
Gary Barnidge had and up-and-down day. Early on the far field he dropped a couple of passes, and wasn't in his element; but by the end of the session he was going over the middle, making some nice catches, and became more comfortable. It's safe to chalk up the early struggles as him getting the rust off.
A little later Jaxon will give another detailed look at practice, and he got a much better view of the position drills for the offensive and defensive linemen, so I'll save that for him.
I spent a lot of time early in the practice focusing on the linebacker drills, and I can tell you that Luke Kuechly is as good as advertised. He is so fluid as an athlete, hits the bag so hard, and hand drills showed him hitting the dummy even harder than Beason. Kuechly's hands explode from his sides in an instant, and got right where you'd want him to hit to throw off a blocking RB's balance. From there he displayed a brutally fast swim move. In INT drills he was incredibly fast, and I didn't see him drop a pass in the individual drills.
Beason looks as good as ever, so no worries about him at all. It's Thomas Davis we should keep an eye on. TD is out there and leaving everything on the field, but you can tell he's just a shade behind where we're used to seeing him. Even before he tweaked his leg you saw Davis walking a little more gingerly as he returned from a drill. I'm hoping this is just more rust being shaken off early.
The defensive backs looked quite good. Haruki Nakamura is very vocal in the backfield, and looks like a leader in waiting, however he didn't have a great practice yesterday. He bit on a couple of plays, and was out of position. On the other hand Sherrod Martin was mostly silent, but looked stellar. His awareness was much improved, and in both sessions he made a standout play. Godfrey is who we thought he was, and will continue to be over-aggressive at times.
Chris Gamble suffered from heat issues this weekend, so it gave me a good chance to look at Josh Norman and Brandon Hogan. Norman was primarily responsible for covering Steve Smith, and, well... Smitty owned him. It was clear Smith was ready to send a message to the rookie this weekend, and he did just that. Not that we should expect a rookie to cover one of the best receivers in the NFL, but it's worth noting that this ‘incredible rookie who can blanket Steve Smith' that was present at OTAs was noticeably absent. However, he has all the markings of an NFL starter, and I think he'll win the job handily. Brandon Hogan looked quite good too, but it's clear that Norman is the more talented. Hogan will be a deadly nickel back if given that role.
Special teams were tough to gauge from a KR/PR standpoint, but Justin Medlock was amazing all day long. Words cannot accurately describe just how different it was watching Medlock on Sunday vs. Mare on Saturday. At first I thought Medlock was 8/8 yesterday, but the Panthers say 7/8-- I'd go with them since I had a side view. Despite this, he was asked to kick twice in the 30 yard range, four times in the 40 yard range, and twice from 50 yard range; and he only missed one from around 53 yards. On kickoffs he was a perfect 4/4 on touchbacks, and the team resorted to handing a spare ball to Pilares so he could practice returns, because Medlock was getting it so deep in the end zone. If this keeps up then the competition is over, and Justin Medlock will be your new starting kicker.
On the punting side (cc: BW Smith), Brad Nortman continued to impress on the third practice field. He has a mammoth, scary leg when he starts to un-cork it, and now I've seen it in person I believe those lofty numbers of 6+ second hang time. The one concern is that it really does take him a while from the time he receives the snap, to when the ball comes off his foot. Not really a huge worry now, but something to watch when they get into pads.
All in all I'd say the Carolina Panthers look really good. It was a case where the defense looked really hungry, and the offense were more content going through the paces. In those situations you can't try and derive too much information, or draw sweeping conclusions. There were a few standout players, but this looks like a much better team overall. The depth players are stepping up, and we might be far deeper at WR and CB than even I expected.
I'll be in this thread as much as possible today, and answer any questions you might have that weren't covered in this article.