Healthy Panthers QB Newton looking to improve accuracy

STEVE REED, AP Sports Writer

A healthy Cam Newton wants to improve his accuracy heading into his fifth season with the Carolina Panthers.

The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011 said he's looking to complete about 65 to 70 percent of his passes in 2015, which is a lofty goal for a quarterback who has never completed better than 61.7 percent of his passes in a season and only 59.5 percent for his career.

"It's not just like playing a game of Madden," Newton said Wednesday following practice. "When you have live bullets flying out there and you don't have a receiver open, you have to find a completion. That's something I'm maturing into, morphing into as a player — that when all hell breaks loose, no matter what the situation is at hand, I have to find a way to keep the bus going forward."

He'll have to move that bus without co-pilot Kelvin Benjamin.

The Panthers lost their No. 1 wide receiver in training camp to a torn ACL, leaving journeyman Ted Ginn Jr. and the unheralded Philly Brown as the team's starters heading into Jacksonville on Sunday.

Newton does have one of the game's most productive tight ends in 1,000-yard receiver Greg Olsen and a solid group of running backs that excel catching the ball out of the backfield, including Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton has done a better job this offseason of getting the ball out quicker and making faster — and better — decisions.

"That comes from getting familiarity within the system," Rivera said of Newton, who is entering his fifth year working with offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

It also helps that Newton is as healthy as he's ever been since joining the NFL.

He missed last year's season opener at Tampa Bay with fractured ribs, snapping a string of 48 straight starts. He was also recovering from offseason ankle surgery at the time, a recovery process that Newton would later acknowledge took longer than he initially anticipated.

As if that wasn't enough, Newton would fracture two bones in his lower back last December when another car collided with his truck, sending his vehicle flipping over before coming to rest on its hood on a highway overpass just blocks from the team's stadium.

He's eager to put that injury-plagued season behind him.

"I'm ready to go," Newton said.

Newton still managed to start 14 games last season and helped the Panthers win the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record.

But this season the Panthers have legitimate concerns at wide receiver. Ginn has only started five games in the last five seasons and Brown is coming off a shaky preseason in which he dropped five passes, including two would-be touchdowns from Newton. Second-round draft pick Devin Funchess has struggled to stay on the field due to hamstring problems, although he will play Sunday.

Newton, who signed a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension this past offseason, looked fairly sharp in the preseason.

But too often his receivers let him down with dropped passes and there were other times when penalties ended promising drives.

Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery doesn't believe the loss of Benjamin or the drops will affect Newton's confidence heading into the season.

"I think it is going to be sky high because that's how he approaches things from classroom to the field," Cotchery said.

Newton may not have Benjamin, but he did get some good news Wednesday when four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil returned to practice on a limited basis after missing the last two weeks with a sprained left knee.

Kalil is considered the anchor of the offensive line.

Cornerback Josh Norman also practiced but still has to clear one more hurdle in the concussion protocol, leaving defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (foot) and fullback Richie Brockel (shoulder) as the only two players that did not practice.