After most of his teammates had already arrived Wednesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stepped out of a golf cart and walked out to the practice fields with a noticeable limp.
But the fact that Newton was there at all was an encouraging sign.
A little more than two months following ankle surgery, Newton threw on the sideline and again after practice as the Panthers went through their second of 10 scheduled OTA (organized team activities) sessions. They will practice again Thursday before taking the weekend off.
Newton did not participate in team drills, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he wouldn’t be surprised if the two-time Pro Bowler is more involved during the three-day minicamp next month.
After team doctor and well-known foot and ankle specialist Robert Anderson tightened ligaments in Newton’s left ankle during the March 19 surgery, the Panthers said Newton’s recovery would be four months, putting him in line to return for the start of training camp.
“He’s been doing it for the last few days, throwing the ball on the side,” Rivera said after Wednesday’s two-hour practice. “He’s been looking good, he really has. And I’m excited about it. He says that foot is getting stronger and stronger every day, so we’re excited about what’s happening for him.”
Trailing Newton to practice was defensive end Greg Hardy, who walked up wearing headphones before taking them off as he entered the gates to the fields.
Hardy was arrested May 13 and charged with assaulting a female and communicating threats following an early-morning altercation with his ex-girlfriend at his uptown residence. The Panthers and the NFL say they plan to let the legal process take its course before any possible action against Hardy.
Hardy declined comment as he left the practice field flanked by running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Hardy said he had to lift weights.
Hardy, who was given the franchise tag during the offseason at the cost of $13.1 million for this season, was effective rushing at times during the practice. With no live contact allowed during OTAs under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Hardy had an edge over the offensive linemen.
“Greg’s looked really good. It’s tough because we’re not in pads. So when he comes off the ball, the tackles can’t really strike him the way you normally would in pads,” Rivera said. “So I think advantage goes to him right now. He’s very quick, very athletic and doing some very good things.”
Several of Hardy’s teammates said they are trying not to allow his legal situation to become a distraction.
“I don’t get into people’s personal life,” said defensive end Charles Johnson. “I just stay in my own lane, try to do what I do and try to stay consistent.”
Johnson said he has not talked to Hardy about the specifics of his case, but told him: “Come to work, man. You can’t worry about what’s going on.”
Cornerback Charles Godfrey echoed Johnson’s comments about not prying in Hardy’s business.
“I don’t know the facts. I don’t know what’s going on,” Godfrey said. “I know our coaches and the people upstairs do a great job of finding out everything. I just wish the best for him. We just move on and whatever happens, happens. I try not to worry about what other people are going through.”
Godfrey worked a lot on the side Wednesday while he continues his recovery from Achilles surgery last September. He saw a secondary that has been turned over almost completely from the so-called “No Name” unit that helped the Panthers finish with the league’s No. 2 defense in 2013.
Second-year corner Melvin White was the only holdover working with the first-team defensive backs Wednesday. He was joined by three free agent acquisitions, corner Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, although it was rookie corner Bene’ Benwikere who turned heads with an interception and a pass breakup on successive plays.
Godfrey said it was different seeing all the new faces in the secondary, but he’s not going to dwell on the changes.
“We can’t sit here and say, ‘OK, well, we lost a lot of people.’ I’m coming back and there’s a lot of people that are gone. We have to step up and we have to play,” Godfrey said. “We have to get better each day. I think we made a stride from the first day to the second day. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Besides the secondary, the Panthers have a revamped receiving corps and – for the first time in more than a decade – competition at the left tackle position.
With wide receiver Steve Smith’s release, tackle Jordan Gross’ retirement and all the roster turnover, Johnson said he knows expectations around the league will be low for the Panthers.
“It’s Carolina, you know? Cats don’t give us any respect. We just earn our respect,” Johnson said. “That’s outside talk, though. We know what we’ve got inside and we know what we’re capable of. We’re just going to go out and show them.”
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