CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Cam Newton had a sickening feeling in his stomach as he walked out of Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium last January.
The Panthers had just lost to the Buccaneers in Week 17 to finish 6-10, last place in the NFC South – a marked dropoff after reaching the Super Bowl the year before.
No NFC championship to defend. Not even a trip to the playoffs. Just heartbreak, frustration and disappointment over a season that started with a loss to the Broncos in a Super Bowl rematch and never got on track.
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”I can’t ever let that happen again – ever,” Newton said of Carolina’s first non-playoff season since 2012.
The league’s 2015 MVP is on a mission to get the Panthers back on top after battling through the worst statistical season of his six-year NFL career, then having offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. He played just one series in the preseason but the Panthers aren’t worried about him heading into the season.
The good news for Newton is he won’t be expected to do it alone.
The Panthers have taken some of the pressure off Newton running the ball by adding rookie running back Christian McCaffrey form Stanford in the first round, and Ohio State wide receiver Curtis Samuel in the second. They already have wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. They drafted tackle Taylor Moton with their other second-round pick and gave free agent left tackle Matt Kalil a five-year, $55 million contract.
McCaffrey in particular has been impressive during training camp and the preseason, lining up in a number of positions, including running back, the slot and even quarterback.
”He showed that he can run the ball from the backfield, he can get out in space and run routes and catch passes,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. ”He showed that he can be a threat. He looked good returning the punts.”
Samuel and free agent pickup Russell Shepard bring top-end speed at wide receiver that should help offset the loss of Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with division rival New Orleans.
With all of the new pieces in place, Newton feels like the Panthers have what it takes to win their fourth NFC South title in five years – and avenge last year’s awful season.
”I took last year personally,” Newton said at the start of training camp. ”I took it extremely personally and I knew that something had to change.”
Some things to watch with the Panthers this season:
KUECHLY’S HEAD: Luke Kuechly hasn’t played in a regular-season game since sustaining a second concussion midway through the 2016 season. While the three-time All-Pro said he feels great and has no concerns about suffering a third concussion, nobody wants to talk about it – especially Kuechly.
Of course, it’s worth paying attention to, especially after Kuechly was carted off last year during a game sobbing uncontrollably in one of the scariest brain trauma incidents NFL fans have witnessed on television.
VETERAN PIECES: The Panthers are clearly going for broke this season , perhaps sensing their window of opportunity may be closing fast with a number of aging core players, including Olsen, RB Jonathan Stewart, center Ryan Kalil, outside linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson. That’s why the team added 37-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers – the franchise’s No. 1 draft pick in 2001 and its all-time leader in sacks – as well as 36-year-old safety Mike Adams and 29-year-old cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
PROTECTING CAM: When healthy, the Panthers have one of the better interior offensive lines in two-time All-Pro Ryan Kalil and guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. Kalil hasn’t played in the preseason while resting his shoulder, but should be ready for the season opener at San Francisco. The question for the Panthers will be at the tackle spots where they’re replacing two starters. Matt Kalil, Ryan’s younger brother, will start at left tackle , and Daryl Williams will step in at right tackle.
SOPHOMORE CORNERBACKS: Cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley took their lumps as rookies last year, but appear more confident and ready entering this season. Bradberry in particular has turned heads in training camp with some big plays; some teammates believe it won’t be long before he’s mentioned with the top cover men in the league.
RIVERA’S JOB: There is an underlying current that this might be Rivera’s final season if Carolina doesn’t make the playoffs. Despite winning the division three straight seasons, the Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons (they went 7-8-1 in 2014). Owner Jerry Richardson parted with team president Danny Morrison and general manager Dave Gettleman this offseason and fired his two sons in the past. So he’s not afraid to pull the trigger if he doesn’t like the direction the team is headed.
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