CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cam Newton emphatically stated the Carolina Panthers "want the division back."
For the Panthers to win their first NFC South title since 2015, Newton needs to prove he can stay healthy — and be productive.
The 2015 league MVP was having a solid season under first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner before shoulder fatigue set in midway through the schedule. The team could never figure out how to resolve the problem and rest during the week proved to be of little help. It appeared to throw off the QB's timing on game days.
By the end of the year Newton could barely throw the ball 20 yards downfield and eventually had to sit out the final two games.
But Newton feels like he has made good progress following arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January. He's back to throwing 50-yard bombs and has shown good velocity.
The question remains how well he'll hold up for the duration of a 16-game regular season. For Newton, much of the battle back has been mental given he initially injured the shoulder late in the 2016 season when he landed on it while attempting to run down a defensive back following an interception.
"A lot of times you have to just get out of your own head," Newton said. "When you're hurt for so long, you keep telling yourself, 'Just do it. Just do it.'"
Panthers coach Ron Rivera likes what he saw from Newton in training camp and the way he's approached his rehab.
"The biggest thing is he's gone out and sought the right type of help," Rivera said. "He's got the right type of people around him that are working around him."
Some things to know about the 2019 Panthers, who open Sept. 8 against the Rams:
With Newton coming off surgery, coaches and trainers continue to work on the quarterback's throwing mechanics, something quite evident in the lengthy amount of time he spends warming up the shoulder before practice. The Panthers feel like better mechanics will help Newton's longevity in the league.
"We're making sure his feet and his eyes are working together," said quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. "Making him a little more compact in his upper body, a little more closed off, just to make him as efficient as possible and put the least amount of stress possible on the shoulder."
NEW 3-4 DEFENSIVE LOOK
Rivera will again be calling plays on defense, a role he assumed midway through last season when Carolina's defense began struggling under coordinator Eric Washington. One thing Rivera, a former defensive coordinator himself, learned during that stretch is the Panthers had become too "stagnant" on defense.
That prompted Rivera to move to a 3-4 scheme in hopes of being less predictable.
"The biggest thing is that we are playing so many multiple-style offenses that you just can't line up and let them attack you," Rivera said.
McCAFFREY'S BIGGER ROLE
The Panthers want to decrease running back Christian McCaffrey's plays, while increasing the second-team All-Pro's number of touches.
That means McCaffrey could build on a season in which he racked up a franchise-record 1,965 yards from scrimmage. McCaffrey said that is "music to my ears."
The 23-year-old McCaffrey had 1,098 yards rushing on 219 carries and 867 yards receiving on an NFL running backs- record 107 receptions in 2018. But the Panthers don't want him playing 91.3 percent of the plays like he did a year ago, by far the largest percentage of any running back in the league.
"We want the ball in Christian's hands," Rivera said. "When he's on the field, there's no reason for him to be a decoy or be a swing guy. ... What we want to do is take away the excess plays that he doesn't have to be out there."
Defensive end Julius Peppers and center Ryan Kalil retired (with Kalil later unretiring), linebacker Thomas Davis wasn't re-signed, and nickel back Captain Munnerlyn was released in a busy offseason of change. Between them they'd played 43 seasons for the Panthers.
That's a ton of lost NFL experience.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said it's strange not having Davis around after he spent 14 seasons with Carolina, but added "that is just kind of how the game goes and guys understand that."
"We have a lot of new moving parts," Rivera said. "We lost some savvy veterans who have been around for a long time and they have moved on. So we have some guys who have to step up."
SAMUEL READY TO STEP UP
If training camp was any indication, Curtis Samuel could be on the cusp of a breakout season providing he can stay healthy. The third-year wide receiver has battled through foot, hamstring and heart issues in the past, but proved to be the team's standout at camp, showing an ability to create separation against defenders and the speed and quickness to make big time plays.
Rivera views Samuel as a "very dynamic, explosive player" who can pick up chunk yardage in a hurry.
Samuel had seven touchdowns last season despite only touching the ball 57 times, while averaging 12.7 yards per reception and 10.5 yards per carry.
"Whenever I got the ball in my hands, I made things happen for the team," Samuel said. "I scored touchdowns. That's what I do."