Here's a preview of my column for Friday's newspaper and online:
After quarterback Cam Newton had what I consider to be the best rookie season by any NFL player at any position, you might think the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t want him to change one bit.
In fact, however, they are excited that he seems a little different. Listen to Panther coach Ron Rivera, who talked with Newton this week after the veteran players reported back to Bank of America Stadium Monday for offseason workouts.
“I had a chance to visit with him briefly and he seems like a different person,” Rivera said Thursday. “He seems more mature, in terms of ready to take some leadership roles.”
A different person? That’s a strong statement. And that, to me, was one of the most interesting things said when the Panthers held their annual pre-draft news conference Thursday.
Now this is me saying this and not Rivera, but I’d say the Panthers got just about everything they could possibly have imagined out of Newton in 2011 – except for consistent leadership.
Back to Rivera on Newton: “Last year he was very respectful of our leadership and our veteran players. And I think he looks at himself, as he should, as a mature veteran player that can really help this football team ascend. And I’m pretty excited about that for him.”
Newton was an absolute stunner last season. He accounted for 35 touchdowns (14 rushing, 21 passing) – the most TDs by a rookie in NFL history. His strong work ethic was a pleasant surprise. And at 6-5 and 248 pounds, he ran through and over enough defensive backs that he started making players think twice about where and how to tackle him once he got past a defense’s first level.
“There are guys out there in the back half of NFL defenses making business decisions at that point,” ESPN’s Herm Edwards, a former NFL player and coach for 30 years, told me once. “They’re going, ‘I don’t really want to tackle this guy.’ Cam is a whole different sort of cat. His athleticism is just like, ‘Really?! Really?!’”
But Newton also had a tendency to look like he was brooding on the sidelines, shielding his head with a Gatorade towel, when things were going poorly for a team that ended up 6-10. He could get so involved in his private pain that he had a hard time shaking his whole team by the shoulder pads and saying, “C’mon! We’re going to fix this.”
Read more on this topic -- and on the Panthers' draft prospects with the No.9 pick -- in Friday's Charlotte Observer and online all the time at CharlotteObserver.com