Forget rust, Newton will be better than ever

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A member of the Carolina Panthers staff held a blocking dummy high above his head Thursday, the top of the blue pad approximately 10 feet from the ground, in the left corner of the end zone.

It was supposed to represent the near maximum height which rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, can go up for a pass.

The quarterbacks, standing at midfield on the 10-yard line, were supposed to aim for the top of the pad.

Cam Newton overthrew it by a good five feet.

"Way high," the staff member said during the finale of a three-day minicamp.

Newton was confused. He thought he was supposed to be throwing to another staff member about 10 yards behind the one with the pad.

"I thought you were the defender," Newton said before bringing his next attempt down within a foot of the dummy.

We'll give Newton a pass on that one. He didn't understand the drill, which was all about finding ways to put the ball in perfect position for Benjamin to get over shorter cornerbacks in the red zone. More on that later.

Newton couldn't use that excuse during seven-on-seven drills, his first since undergoing surgery on his left ankle in March. His first attempt missed running back DeAngelo Williams high on an out pattern to the right.

Then he missed wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery high on an out pattern to the same spot. After finally connecting on a couple of dump passes over the middle to wide receiver Tavarres King and running back Kenjon Barner, Newton overthrew wide receiver Brenton Bersin on a deep route down the left sideline.

The second series didn't go much better for the former Heisman Trophy winner. He went 1-for-5 with an interception when a high ball went off the hands of wide receiver Tiquan Underwood.

As Newton later admitted, "Real sluggish. My mind was moving faster than my body."

The timing was so off that it was jokingly suggested from a football field away that Carolina had a quarterback controversy brewing with backup Derek Anderson looking sharp.

Read carefully. It was a joke.

Anderson is no threat to replace Newton, expected to be 100 percent or close to it by the time training camp opens in late July. Despite Thursday's rust, he should be better than ever.

Besides three years of experience, Newton will have more talent at wide receiver than he's had during his first two seasons in Benjamin along with veteran free agent acquisitions Jason Avant and Cotchery.

He'll have more talent at tight end with free agent Ed Dickson joining Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver from last season. Don't overlook how good former basketball player Brandon Williams might be as well now that he fully grasps the system.

With the ligaments in his ankle tightened, a pain-free Newton should be faster and more elusive than ever. That has to worry every defensive coordinator preparing for what already was one of the best running quarterbacks in the league.

As Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway recently told me, Newton is on the verge of moving into the upper tier of NFL quarterbacks. Critics no longer are questioning his ability to lead after guiding the Panthers to a 12-4 record last season.

They no longer are questioning his ability to make clutch plays as he showed he could do in last-minute wins against Miami, San Francisco, New England and New Orleans last season.

Coach Ron Rivera doesn't have a problem with national perception the Panthers will take a big tumble this season because he's confident players such as Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly give him a strong foundation to build around.

Having one of the league's best front sevens on defense doesn't hurt, either.

Signs of rust on Newton aren't a reason to panic. He's almost a month ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation and plans to spend the next month in Charlotte working with players such as Benjamin to get better.

Speaking of Benjamin, he showed why the dummy drill was so important, ripping the ball from the hands of the cornerback in the left corner during another drill as he kept his feet inbounds.

It was jaw-dropping.

Speaking of Newton's rust, he completed his final five passes all to different receivers.

It wasn't a huge deal, but it was symbolic for a team that is practicing with a chip on its shoulder to prove critics wrong.

"Just trying to make the next rep better than the last rep," Newton said. "That's been my mentality to this point."

Appropriate, because that's the mentality of the entire team as it breaks for vacation.