Cam Newton poised for breakout year

May, 16, 2013
5/16/13
1:00
PM ET
PanthersElsa/Getty ImagesThe Panthers plan to feature a power running game and Cam Newton's pocket passing next season.
We haven’t heard much about Cam Newton lately.

Since early last season, it seems Newton has been overshadowed by a bunch of young quarterbacks. Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III started winning and took a lot of attention off Newton, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.

But it would be a huge mistake for anyone to overlook Newton. Call it bouncing back, breaking through or whatever you want, but I’m predicting a big 2013 season from the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers. Yeah, I’ll even step out on a limb and say he has a better 2013 season than Wilson, Kaepernick, Luck and RG III.

Why?

Several reasons pop to mind, but let’s start with this -- Newton has more all-around talent than any of those guys.

Luck can pass nicely, but opposing defenses don’t have to game plan for his running ability. Wilson, RG III and Kaepernick each have some throwing ability, but they aren’t pure pocket passers, and their big 2012 seasons came largely because of their mobility.

Newton is capable of more than any of those guys, because he’s as mobile as RG III, Kaepernick and Wilson. At the same time, he’s as good a pocket passer as Luck.

A lot of people think Newton slumped in 2012. But that’s not necessarily true. His numbers were comparable to his rookie season, but his visibility lessened because the Panthers didn’t take the leap many expected.

They went 7-9 and were largely overlooked.

But you can’t overlook Newton and the Panthers headed into the 2013 season, and that takes us back to Newton’s rare ability. He is so talented, I don’t think Carolina’s coaching staff really knew how to maximize his ability in his first two seasons.

For reasons that never have been explained and I sure as heck can’t figure out, the Carolina coaching staff didn’t take advantage fully of what Newton brings or what else was on the roster at the start of last season.

Although the Panthers had a talented (and very pricey) backfield with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, they barely used that trio at the start of last season. Instead, they featured Newton heavily in the read-option early last season.

In other words, they turned their quarterback into a running back.

Opposing defenses didn’t have to worry much about Newton’s passing, and that was one of the major reasons the Panthers got off to a 2-8 start.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireA physical running game led by Jonathan Stewart could help quarterback Cam Newton turn the Panthers into a contender next season.
That changed down the stretch. The Panthers got back to using a power running game, and they let Newton be a pocket passer. They won enough games to save coach Ron Rivera’s job.

Rivera and his staff took notice of what happened late in the season, and that is another reason I think Newton is in for a big season. Rivera has said he wants to rely more heavily on the power running game in 2013.

In other words, it sounds like the Panthers are going to let their running backs be running backs, and they’re going to let Newton be a quarterback. That sounds to me like a formula for success.

Carolina is going through a change. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula is taking over the play-calling duties.

Shula had a reputation for being too conservative when he was the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, and the head coach at the University of Alabama. But, like Newton, I think Shula is ready for a breakout season.

Part of the reason Shula was so conservative in previous stops was because he didn’t have big-time talent at the skill positions. He has that talent now with Newton, the running backs, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.

I still expect Shula to be a bit more of a traditionalist than Chudzinski, but I think that’s a good thing. He’s going to rely on that running game more, and that’s going to open up the passing game for Newton.

Newton threw for more than 7,900 yards in his first two seasons. He also rushed for more than 700 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Newton’s legs are a valuable asset, and the Panthers can’t ignore that. The Panthers can use the threat of Newton’s running skills to keep defenses off balance, but they also need to keep their offense balanced.

I think they need to adjust things a bit and take an approach similar to what they were using at the end of last season. Scrap the read-option, or at least cut way back on it. Let Newton use his legs to scramble and keep plays alive.

But, first and foremost, let Newton be a passer.

There aren’t many quarterbacks in the league with Newton’s arm strength. The Panthers need to play to that strength.

If they do, Newton won’t be overlooked anymore, and this team could be in the playoffs.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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