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Carolina Panthers: 5 Issues To Watch Going Into 2014-15 Season

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(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says if Cam Newton wants to take the next step in his progression as a quarterback — and extend his career — he needs to borrow a page from Michael Jordan.

Rivera said it’s time for Newton to reduce the amount of hits he takes to his body, which means staying in the pocket more and throwing less.

Newton suffered a hairline fracture to his ribs during Carolina’s Aug. 22 preseason game against New England. He won’t play in the preseason finale, but Rivera hopes to have the two-time Pro Bowler back for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against Tampa Bay.

“He does take a lot of hits, and he takes a lot of hits because of the way he plays the game,” Rivera said recently. “Will he have to adapt and develop a different style? Yes. It’s the same thing with Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan used to go to the hole all of the time and dunk, make spectacular layups. But if you ask Michael he realized later in his career he had to develop that jumper. And so he went to work at it.”

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton’s mobility is one of his strengths and a big reason the Panthers went 12-4 and won the NFC South last season. But he underwent ankle surgery in March and recently said he’s still not all the way back.

Rivera and the coaching staff asked Newton to stay in the pocket and not scramble during preseason games. The Panthers haven’t used the read option, a staple of their offense the past three seasons.

Rivera said in some respects the ankle injury “might have been the best thing to happen to him in terms of his pure quarterbacking development.”

“He’s had to stay in the pocket, he’s had to have good footwork and he’s had to step into his throws,” Rivera said.

The next step may be teaching Newton how to slide. Newton was injured against the Patriots when he went in headfirst instead of sliding.

Before the injury, Rivera jokingly suggested he may need to enlist someone from the Charlotte Knights, a Triple-A baseball team, to teach Newton how to get down.

Newton has run for 2,032 yards and 28 touchdowns, more than any QB in the NFL in the last three seasons. So the Panthers don’t want to abandon his scrambling ability altogether.

They just want to keep him around for a long time.

“I’m trying to win football games,” Newton said. “And if that is saying, ‘Cam, hand the ball off every play. Cam, run the ball down the field 20 yards like a chicken with his head cut off every play. Cam, drop back and throw the ball. Cam, go get everybody a drink of water.’ … Whatever is asked of me, I will do to try to win the football game.”

Some things to watch from the Panthers this season:

BENJAMIN’S PROGRESS: First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin has fans excited about the future rather than dwelling on the loss of Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver released this past offseason and now in Baltimore. The 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin had a terrific training camp and made a diving grab in the end zone in the team’s first preseason game against Buffalo. He’s developed a close bond with Newton — the two have been inseparable — and is firmly entrenched as a starter.

BLENDING SECONDARY: Carolina’s defensive front seven remains intact, but the secondary will have three new starters: cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper. All three are veterans, so the main concern is blending them together and developing some chemistry.

In front of the defensive backs is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Luke Kuechly.

RETURN CONCERNS: Carolina had one of the league’s best special teams units last year, but lost returner Ted Ginn Jr., who provided several big plays as a returner. Rivera still isn’t quite sure who’ll be returning punts and kickoffs.

STEWART’S HEALTH: For the first time in three years, the Panthers could have a healthy Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. Stewart looked strong in the second preseason game against the Chiefs, rushing for 26 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-10, 235-pound Stewart runs with a low center of gravity and rarely goes down on first contact. He would be a huge plus for a backfield that already has DeAngelo Williams and fullback Mike Tolbert. The big question will be if a revamped offensive line can open holes.

HARDY’S DISTRACTION: Defensive end Greg Hardy, Carolina’s designated franchise player, is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 17 to appeal his conviction on two counts of domestic violence. Hardy’s lawyer still thinks that date will be pushed back until after the NFL season. If not, it could make for a messy off-field distraction for Hardy and his teammates.

___

AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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