Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton recently reached out to fellow Auburn Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, whose signature "Bo Knows" Nike cross-training shoes campaign was made popular in the late 1980s, on how to deal with injuries.
Jackson, the 1985 Heisman winner, suffered a hip injury in 1991 that ended his football career and forced him to focus on his baseball career.
"Bo is kind of like my long-lost big brother, so to speak," Newton said during Carolina's offseason workout program on Tuesday. "He's a guy I know and I can trust that can keep it a hundred, as we say, keep it real with me no matter what the situation is as far as personal life or professional life.
"He's helped me out so much in my career now, and any time you have a guy like that, of that magnitude, that you can reach out [to] and ask questions, that's what I do."
This is part of how Newton is handling the mental side of dealing with injuries. The first pick of the 2011 draft said he's asked more questions and watched more film than ever before.
Jackson has become one he's leaned on the most, not only on dealing with injuries but fame and fortune.
Fortunately for Newton, he's not going through anything as traumatic as Jackson did with his hip. Newton's surgery is expected to make his ankle stronger than ever.
Or to paraphrase Newton, it's scary to think of how much better he can be with a healthy set of wheels.
The key here is Newton's willingness to reach out to athletes like Jackson. Not all star players are so willing.
"A guy who has been a hyped athlete, to do the things that he's done and to deal with injuries ... how does he deal with it?" Newton said. "Whoever, no matter if you're an athlete or businessman, I'm always looking for ways to make me better."
ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton says that even though Cam Newton is recovering from ankle surgery, the Carolina QB will still benefit from the offseason workout program by getting to know his new group of wide receivers.
Meet No. 4:
A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Muhammad finished with 11,438 yards and 62 touchdowns. His 696 catches for 9,255 yards and 50 touchdowns at Carolina ranks second all-time behind Steve Smith. His 16 touchdown catches in 2004 remain a single-season record.
Muhammad co-led the NFL in receptions in 2000 with 102, which stood as a team record until Smith caught 103 in 2005. He held all the team receiving records when he left Carolina after the 2004 season. He set a Super Bowl record with his 85-yard touchdown catch in Carolina's 32-29 loss to New England following the 2003 season.
Few Panthers have been more productive than this 6-foot-2, 215-pounder whose signature touchdown dance was featured in the opening cameos of "Madden NFL 2006."
That's why he's No. 4. Can guess who is next?
The quarterback for the Carolina Panthers said all the right things on Tuesday about offseason moves that left him without his top four wide receivers from last season.
He downplayed any role management's desire for him to become more of a leader had in the controversial release of Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver.
And he said it all with that infectious smile that makes you believe all will be good in Pantherland.
"We are all trying to accomplish one goal and one goal only -- to raise the Lombardi Trophy," Newton said on Tuesday, the team's second day of offseason workouts.
The Panthers are a long way from being a Super Bowl contender. They are a long way from being a playoff contender, particularly offensively with a new wide receiver corps, and new players at left and possibly right tackle if Byron Bell is able to successfully switch sides.
But at least they have Newton, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL. If he can progress as much between his third and fourth seasons as he did between his second and third, that should at least keep Carolina competitive on offense.
"No matter who or what the receivers look like, this is a team game," Newton said. "And we all are cautioned about what has been done in this offseason as far as acquisitions and trades and releases. But the fact is, we have our team right now.
"Am I happy about it? Absolutely. Am I ready to take on the challenge? Absolutely. Those guys are hungry, more than ever. And that’s what you want to see, not only in the receiver group, but in the tight end group and running back group, the offensive line group and quarterback group and defensively."
They are only words, but Newton has proven to be more than a big talker throughout his career. That is why when he says things will be all right in the post-Smith era, teammates believe him.
And what teammates believe really is more significant than the fan base that has been more than critical of the moves made by general manager Dave Gettleman after last season's 12-4 season.
You win with strong leaders, and in Newton the Panthers apparently have one. The smile magnifies it.
"The thing that you like is it's sincere," center Ryan Kalil said. "It's not something he puts on for show."
Newton was one of three players ushered in for interviews on Tuesday. The other two were Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Newton is the player coach Ron Rivera and Gettleman want to be more assertive as a leader. Kalil is the veteran expected to replace the locker room presence of retired left tackle Jordan Gross, although Kalil admits replacing Gross' pre-game speeches is a tall order.
And Kuechly is the defensive leader, not so much by what he says, but by what he does.
Those three are a big reason management believes the Panthers can put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history.
"I feel great about the guys that are stepping into those roles," Kalil said. "They're really good people. To me those are the best kinds of leaders.
"Even though Cam is someone who likes to get in front of the mic and thinks he's a lot more entertaining than he really is, he does a great job. I mean, the guy works hard day in and day out, in the classroom and on the field. Luke's the epitome of that. If those are going to be our leaders, then those are good leaders."
There remain big questions. Can Bell replace Gross? Can wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood equal or improve on the production of Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon? Can the defense remain a force for the second straight season with a makeshift secondary?
But there is no questioning the leadership. There is no questioning Newton's leadership after two-plus seasons of nothing but questions about it.
As Kuechly said, leading is about doing what's natural. Newton's smile and ability to elevate those around him is as natural as they come.
When he recovers from surgery to repair stretched tendons, Newton's natural ability to be a threat with his legs as well as his arm will play a big role as well.
"When I saw him yesterday, same old Cam, happy, running around, cracking jokes," Kuechly said of Newton, albeit there was no running around. "The biggest thing is he's excited to go out and play a football game.
"He's very confident this year in what he's doing, and it's going to show."
Newton, along with the core of the league's second-ranked defense, is why Gettleman had the confidence to make the offseason moves that made him a target for criticism.
It's way too early to tell if he's right, but Newton has the charisma to make it feel possible.
"We have a lot of guys that are hungry and ready to prove something in this league," Newton said. "And that’s what I want to do as well."
He's also on the fast track to getting to know a new group of wide receivers after losing his top four during the offseason.
"With our first meeting out there yesterday, to see everybody split up, I felt like that lost kid that was in detention and can't go to recess,'' Newton said Tuesday, the second day of Carolina's offseason workout program. He was commenting publicly on his new receiving targets for the first time since the offseason shakeup.
"I was looking at those guys helplessly walking back to the training room. It's all for a good cause. I need to get 100 percent for myself, but my production as far as how I can get better does not stop.''
Newton was wearing a walking boot that he said was entirely for precautionary purposes. He will split time during the first part of OTAs between Charlotte and Auburn, where he is taking classes to complete his degree.
This wasn't nearly as easy as picking the five worst that were revealed over the last week. With those a first-round player that failed stood out like Mel Kiper's hair in room full of bald men.
There were a dozen players deserving recognition for the five best picks, some that lived up to expectations as a first-rounder and lower-round picks that had stellar careers.
I didn't limit this to first-round picks as I did with the worst picks because first-rounders are supposed to excel.
To focus totally on first-rounders for the best picks would mean not including Tom Brady, a sixth-rounder, in evaluating New England's drafts. It would mean not including Joe Montana, a third-rounder, in evaluating San Francisco's drafts.
You get the picture.
Carolina's top five, which will be revealed between now and Monday, were picked solely by me with a bit of consultation from others that have been around the team since it began in 1995. Feel free to agree or disagree.
First up, No. 5:
Safety Mike Minter, 2nd round, No. 56 overall, 1997 out of Nebraska -- This was the toughest choice because it meant eliminating a lot of great players. Among those considered strongly were defensive end Charles Johnson (third-rounder, 2007, Georgia), defensive end Greg Hardy (sixth round, 2010, Ole Miss), defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (second round, 2001, Maryland) and defensive end Mike Rucker (second round, 1999, Nebraska).
Johnson already is third on the team's all-time sack list with 54, 1.5 behind Rucker. Hardy, if he continues on his current pace, has a chance to be one of the top two picks because of what he's done and where he was selected.
But I went with Minter because of what he accomplished on the field and what he meant to the organization. He became a starter in his sixth game and was a fixture there for 10 years except for 10 games in his second season due to a staph infection that developed after complications with knee surgery.
His 953 tackles ranks as the most in team history. His 17 interceptions ranks third all-time and his 16 forced fumbles ranks second. He retired with the team record for consecutive starts (94) and overall starts (141), the latter a mark that still ranks tied for third. He also was a locker room leader and active in the community.
Feel free to debate. Can you guess who's coming next?
He is a black eye on the NFL.
Meet No. 1.
Rae Carruth, wide receiver, first round, No. 27 overall out of Colorado in 1997: Officially Rae Lamar Wiggins, this is a player the organization wish never existed. For those that were around on November 16, 1999, it was the darkest and most chilling time in team history.
That's when, according to prosecutors, Carruth masterminded the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. Carruth didn't actually pull the trigger. But according to the 911 call made by Adams, Carruth stopped his car in front of her car to allow the hired gunman to pull up beside and shoot her four times.
That led to a nationwide manhunt for Carruth, who was found on December 15 inside the trunk of a car in Wildersville, Tenn. He was charged and later convicted in the conspiracy to murder Adams, who died, and his unborn child, who survived. He was sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison, where he remains to this day.
Carruth's career didn't start out so dark. As a rookie in 1997, he caught 44 passes for 545 yards and four touchdowns. He began the 1998 season with four catches for 59 yards, but broke his foot in that game and didn't catch another pass the rest of the season.
He had 14 catches for 200 yards during the first six games of 1999 before he became the player, as one recently told me, most Carolina fans try to forget. The Panthers released him on December 16, citing a morals clause in his contract.
When it comes to worst picks in team history, there isn't a close second.
Yes, the offseason workout program is here.
Newton won't be around for the whole offseason program because he's taking classes at Auburn, but he will have a presence.
The first phase of the program will last two weeks. It is focused on strength and conditioning as well as rehab. Perhaps more importantly, it will allow a free-agency class that includes a new group of wide receivers to replace the top four from last season to integrate with returning players.
The team released all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and let Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon go to other teams in free agency. They have been replaced by Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), Jason Avant (Philadelphia) and Tiquan Underwood (Tampa Bay). They will be implemented into a group of young receivers -- Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons and Brenton Bersin -- who will finally get a chance to prove themselves.
The chemistry they develop in the film and workout room will be the first step in building the chemistry they will ultimately have on the field.
Phase 2 of the program is a three-week period that allows on-field workouts with individual player instruction and drills. No live contact or team offense vs. defense drills are permitted.
Phase 3 won't begin until late May after Memorial Day weekend. It is a four-week period in which the team can conduct a total of 10 days of organized practice. There is no live contact, but 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills are permitted.
Among the more significant lingering questions is the health of free safety Charles Godfrey, who continues to rehab the Achilles injury that sidelined him the final 14 games of last season.
The Panthers still have to decide whether they will keep Godfrey or release him with a June 1 designation to save $5.1 million under the salary cap. They can't make that decision until Godfrey is cleared medically. The team signed former Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud as insurance in free agency.
This also will be a key time in determining who will back up Newton in 2014. Veteran Derek Anderson, re-signed to a two-year deal during the offseason, should have no trouble holding down the second spot.
But the Panthers also want to take a good look at Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb.
The last part of the program is a mandatory minicamp June 17-19. Then it's a short break before things begin for real with training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.
That means there are questions to be answered.
I'm here for you. Let's get straight to my Saturday mailbag:
Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.
Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.
Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.
Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.
"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."
One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.
The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.
Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.
It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.
Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.
"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.
Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.
It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.
Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.
Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.
The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.
Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.
The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.
Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.
"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."
Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.
"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"
Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.
A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.
He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.
Then he acted on them.
Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."
Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.
For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.
The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.
Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.
So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.
And then there's the core philosophy.
"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.
"Ron has that."
If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
Meet No. 2:
Jason Peter, defensive end, first round, No. 14 overall out of Nebraska in 1998: First, Peter was considered undersized (285 pounds) at the time. The Panthers knew that. But what former general manager Marty Hurney and others in the organization insisted they didn't know was that Peter had an addiction to pain medication and drugs. That came out in 2004, three years after Peter's career allegedly ended because of the neck injury. That is when he discussed his addiction on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." Peter said his addiction began in college when he was given a painkiller to treat a knee injury suffered during his freshman season. He told Gumbel by the time he left Nebraska he was receiving "endless prescriptions" from doctors he would meet at parties. He said that led to harder drugs such as cocaine and Ecstasy while at Carolina. He told "Real Sports" he was taking up to 80 Vicodins a day while with the Panthers. He admittedly got hooked on heroin after football.
Peter was arrested on drunk driving charges while with the Panthers in 1999. Several former teammates admitted after his "Real Sports" interview aired that they knew Peter was abusing drugs while in the NFL.
Peter chronicled his issues in "Hero of the Underground: My Journey Down to Heroin & Back."
He played in 38 games for Carolina, starting 20. He had 7.5 sacks. He was part of one of the worst draft classes in team history as only three of the eight players selected played more than one season in Charlotte.
Next up, No. 1. Can you guess who that is?
The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year has 36.5 sacks over his first three seasons.
Teams have until May 3 to make a decision on whether to exercise the fifth-year option, which is guaranteed for injury only until the final day of the 2014 league year. It becomes guaranteed at the start of the next league year.
For players drafted in the top 10, the value of the fifth-year option is equal to the transition tag for their position during this offseason.
For players drafted with picks 11-32, the value of the fifth-year option is equal to the average of the 25 highest-paid players at their positions, excluding the top three highest players.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draft is out on ESPN Insider today. He picks the top two rounds for each team, and his latest for the Panthers are players whose stock are on the rise.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Meet No. 3:
Rashard Anderson, cornerback, first round, No. 23 overall in 2000 out of Jackson State: Anderson seemingly had a bright future after collecting 59 tackles and an interception playing cornerback and safety his first two seasons. He had nine starts. He had a five-year, $6 million deal that included a $2.83 million signing bonus.
Then came the spring of 2002. Anderson was suspended as a repeat violator of the NFL's substance abuse program. According to published reports, he tested positive for the third time in a four-month period while in the rehab program. That earned him an indefinite suspension.
Anderson finally was reinstated by then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2004. Soon after that, Carolina cut him. Green Bay and New Orleans brought him in for a workout, but neither signed him.
Anderson tried to make a comeback with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, but didn't make the regular-season roster.
The wasted pick and embarrassment over the repeat offenses made Anderson an easy pick for No. 3.
Any guesses on the top two spots?