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Panthers need Cam Newton healthy from start

The Carolina Panthers should be one of the best teams in the NFL this season. Carolina rolled to a 15-1 record in 2015 before losing in an upset to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Last year, the dreaded hangover happened, as the Panthers stumbled to a stunning 6-10 mark.

In the offseason, there was plenty of good and bad for Carolina. General manager Dave Gentleman was fired in the week prior to training camp, but not before he improved the roster. In the draft, the Panthers netted running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Curtis Samuel, giving the offense some much-needed speed.

Still, none of it matters if Cam Newton can’t be healthy for a full 16 games. Following offseason shoulder surgery, Newton didn’t begin practicing until mid-August and only played in the third preseason game, seeing a single possession (which ended in a touchdown). If Newton can regain anything close to his 2015 MVP form, Carolina should compete for an NFC South title in the loaded division. If Newton can’t find his former game, the Panthers are in deep trouble.

On Sunday, head coach Ron Rivera claimed that despite a limited amount of reps, Newton is healthy and ready to play next weekend in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Per ESPN:

“I think he’s ready,” Rivera said. “You wish he’d had a few more snaps and played a little bit earlier in the preseason so we’d have more to go on. But what we saw, we liked.

“We liked how everything seems to be meshing together as an offense. We’ll see how it goes as we continue to work this week.”

Last year, Newton struggled behind a banged-up offensive line. He completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his throws while throwing for 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The 28-year-old isn’t likely to repeat his season of two years ago when he produced 45 total touchdowns, but if he could reach 30 combined scores, it would represent real growth for the seventh-year man.

Newton has never had a supporting cast around him that matches the current offensive group. Greg Olsen remains one of the league’s top tight ends, eclipsing 1,000 yards last year. After some early weight gain, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is back in shape and gives Newton one of the best targets going. Factor in the additions of McCaffrey and Samuel to go with running back Jonathan Stewart, and Newton has no reason to struggle again.

The Panthers went quietly in 2016, but it’s doubtful we’ll see a repeat performance. If Newton stays upright and gets into a groove, Carolina can make serious noise in a wide-open NFC race.

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