Cam Newton can thank Panthers best by taking advantage of new toys

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The text message popped up on Ron Rivera’s cell phone late Thursday night shortly after the Carolina Panthers selected Maryland wide receiver D.J. Moore with the 24th pick of the NFL draft. It was easy to figure out who sent it without looking at the name because “he put in his hieroglyphics."

It simply said, “Thank you."

The message was from quarterback Cam Newton, appreciative the Panthers, for the second year in a row, added another first-round weapon to his arsenal.

“It really was interesting because Cam stays up on all this stuff and he came right to us with all the offensive guys," Rivera said. “He pays attention to it. He talked about receivers, he talked about offensive lineman, tight ends. I mean, he really did. It was kind of cool to have him react the way that he did."

The Panthers have spent much of the offseason doing all they can to help Newton return to his 2015 NFL MVP form. They fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and hired Norv Turner, known for developing quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers.

They acquired veteran wide receiver Torrey Smith from Philadelphia in a trade. They signed free agent wide receiver Jarius Wright from Minnesota, They gave Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen a two-year extension, assuring he will be with the organization through 2020.

Now the onus is on Newton to perform.

This is a critical year for Newton, who statistically has gone backwards since his MVP season. He had a career-low 52.9 completion percentage in 2016 and last year threw 16 interceptions – the second-highest of his career – to only 22 touchdowns.

His has posted the worst two quarterback passer ratings – 75.8 and 80.7 -- of his seven-year NFL career the past two seasons.

So change wasn’t just needed.

It was demanded.

Now it’s all on Newton. No more excuses that he doesn’t have enough weapons around him.

Adding Moore a year after the Panthers selected do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey with the No. 8 pick and do-it-all slot receiver Curtis Samuel in the second round shows a commitment to making Newton and the offense better.

“He’s a weapon," general manager Marty Hurney said of Moore. “We said that we wanted to add speed, we wanted to add athleticism and we wanted to add weapons -- and he was there. .... He was one of the guys that we really didn’t think was going to get to us, but he did and we feel lucky that he did."

Moore is the weapon at receiver that Newton hasn’t had since Steve Smith was released following the 2013 season. He’s physical like Smith. He can break tackles like Smith. He has the ability to make big yards after the catch like Smith.

He has an attitude like Smith.

Former general manager Dave Gettleman let Smith go in part because Smith was close to the end of his career and in part because he wanted Newton to be the focus of the offense, not the team’s all-time leading receiver.

He tried to replace Smith with Kelvin Benjamin, a first-round pick in 2014 out of Florida State. Benjamin was a solid big target, but he didn’t create separation or make big yards after the catch.

Gettleman selected Devin Funchess in the second round of the 2015 draft, but he has been more of a possession receiver that struggles to create separation.

A wide receiver hasn’t led the Panthers in receptions since Smith had 73 in 2012.

“If you really want to know the truth of how I feel, they have never been able to replace me ... until today,” Smith, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said on camera after Moore was selected. “D.J. Moore will be at that organization for a long time, and I look forward to talking about him.”

Rivera smiled when asked about that remark.

“It’s a very high bar," he said. “For Steve to say that, that’s great praise. I’m pretty fired up. I really do like who [Moore] is as a football player for us. He’s a guy that I believe will be able to come in and have the ability to play all three of our wide receiver positions. He has an opportunity to come in and contribute right away."

Hurney, who selected Smith in the third round of the 2001 draft, sees a lot of Smith in Moore.

“The trait that does stand out probably the most of all his strengths is just his ability to run after the catch," Hurney said. “When he has the ball in his hands, he turns into a running back."

Asked what he brings to the Panthers, Moore didn’t hesitate.

“An exciting player," he said.

He also admitted he “lit it up" when Carolina was at his pro day.

Now it’s up to Newton to light it up with all of his new toys. Since helping Carolina lead the league in scoring in 2015 with 31.3 points per game the Panthers have averaged 23.1 and 22.7 points the past two seasons.

Newton has thrown 41 touchdowns during that span, only five fewer than his MVP season. He has to advance his passing game for Carolina to go deep into the playoffs and keep up with NFC South rivals New Orleans and Atlanta.

Carolina has done everything it can during the offseason to give him that chance.

Moore was the latest piece.

Thank you was the very least Newton should have texted.