Every time quarterback Cam Newton stares across the line of scrimmage during a Panthers’ practice, the player looking back at him reminds Newton an awful lot of himself.
The same fiery competitiveness, the elite skill set, the strong distaste for failure.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly might not have the same stage presence -- or “swag” in Newton’s parlance -- as the third-year quarterback. With his wire-rimed glasses and dark suits, Kuechly is Clark Kent to Newton’s Superman.
But the two are uncanny playmakers who each have a Rookie of the Year Award on their mantle -- and they happen to play the most important positions on each side of the ball. Newton and Kuechly are emerging leaders who were selected as team captains for the first time this week.
The Panthers are not without their areas of deficiencies as they enter Year 3 under Ron Rivera. But in Newton and Kuechly, the Panthers have two young pillars on which to build their future.
“To have Cam Newton, he’s just a kid. He’s still just getting started. And the performance that Luke Kuechly laid down (against Baltimore this preseason) on our national broadcast was phenomenal,” said Jon Gruden, the ESPN analyst and former NFL coach.
“I can only imagine having two young leaders at critical positions, what that does for the Carolina fan base,” Gruden added. “It’s an exceptional job by their organization, there’s no question. And a little bit of good fortune, too. It’s nice when you have the No. 1 pick and there’s a great quarterback in the draft.”
Hurney never wavered
Getting the No. 1 draft choice was the rainbow at the end of the storm that was the 2-14 season of 2010.
After quarterback Andrew Luck decided to stay at Stanford and not enter the draft, the national conversation turned to Newton.
While critics railed on Newton’s character when discussing why he shouldn’t be the Panthers choice, then-general manager Marty Hurney never wavered. With the No. 1 selection, he drafted Newton, who had won national titles at Blinn Junior College and Auburn.
From his 422-yard passing performance in his Panthers debut at Arizona to his 741-yard, team-leading rushing total in 2012, Newton has demonstrated rare, game-breaking talents -- even if the wins haven’t always followed.
Kuechly joined Newton last year after the Panthers drafted him ninth overall.
Many draft experts were calling for the Panthers to take a defensive lineman such as North Carolina’s Quinton Coples. Carolina actually was set to select Alabama safety Mark Barron until Tampa Bay drafted him seventh, according to sources.
Instead, Hurney opted for a player who set an NCAA record with an average of 14 tackles a game in his three seasons at Boston College.
Kuechly showed great promise during the four weeks he spent at outside linebacker until Jon Beason went down with knee and shoulder injuries. When Kuechly moved to his more natural spot at middle linebacker, he and the entire defense took off.
The two first-round picks are young -- Newton is 24, Kuechly is 22 -- without a history of significant injuries, suggesting the Panthers have their two biggest puzzle pieces already in place.
“I think that the cornerstones of their team are there on offense and defense with these two guys,” said Gil Brandt, NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys general manager.
Future of franchise
Newton and Kuechly are among a handful or so of young (25 or younger) tandems around the league, at least among teams that feature a franchise player on each side of the ball.
Last year’s quarterback class produced three dynamic players who led their teams to the playoffs as rookies -- Seattle’s Russell Wilson, the former N.C. State and Wisconsin standout who faces the Panthers in Sunday’s season opener, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck.
Wilson has a couple of young counterparts on the Seahawks’ defense in cornerback Richard Sherman and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who finished second to Kuechly in last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting.
The Redskins have two under-25 playmakers on offense. After taking RG3 second overall behind Luck in the 2012 draft, Washington got a steal in the sixth round with running back Alfred Morris, who rushed for 1,600 yards as a rookie.
Redskins defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, a first-round pick in 2011, made his first Pro Bowl last year and appears to be a player on the rise.
There are no young stalwarts on the Colts’ defense that are the caliber of Luck, who broke Newton’s year-old rookie passing record by throwing for 4,374 yards last season.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl after taking over for Alex Smith near midseason last year. The 49ers have defensive end Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks last season, and a pair of Pro Bowl linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who is three years younger than the 28-year-old Willis.
Franchise building blocks are not limited to quarterbacks and linebackers.
Cincinnati has become a perennial playoff team in part due to the contributions of two former Georgia stars -- wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Quarterback Peyton Manning is the unquestioned leader of the Broncos’ offense, although his arrival last year helped send 25-year-old wideout Demaryius Thomas to his first Pro Bowl after Thomas caught 94 passes for 1,434 yards.
The Broncos also boast one of the best young defensive players in the league in Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller, who is suspended for the first six games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Unlike the three quarterbacks from the 2012 draft, Newton has yet to lead the Panthers to the playoffs, and has a 13-19 record as a starter.
And while all of the up-and-coming players look like they will be perennial Pro Bowlers, they have a ways to go before they reach the level of Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Willis, Jared Allen and the like.
But former NFL safety Eugene Robinson said it helps a team immeasurably when it has great, young players at key positions on offense and defense.
“You’ve got what you need to build on. You’ve got a quarterback that can throw the rock and a quarterback that’s becoming much more polished and seasoned,” said Robinson, an analyst on the Panthers radio broadcasts. “And then you’ve got a linebacker who’s going to be one of the best linebackers in football.
“That makes things so much easier when you’ve got that kind of ability. And at the right positions – middle linebacker and quarterback.”
General manager Dave Gettleman, hired in January to replace Hurney, began building around Kuechly in his first draft with Carolina. The Panthers took defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks, so the two wide bodies could impede blockers and keep them off Kuechly.
If Kuechly’s performance against the Ravens in the third exhibition game was any indication, the Panthers made a wise investment. Kuechly led the league in tackles as a rookie, but what he did in one quarter against the Ravens -- forcing two turnovers that resulted in touchdowns and intercepting Joe Flacco two plays after Kuechly had been called for a questionable personal foul -- caught everyone’s attention around the league.
“I’ve never seen a linebacker have such a good game,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “And he had factors in that game that don’t get reported -- knocking receivers off course and causing Flacco to pull the ball down, and then he gets sacked. There’s nothing that he can’t do.”
Gettleman credited former Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn, who signed with the Panthers during the offseason, for helping Kuechly with different aspects of his game.
Gettleman spent nearly 15 years as the pro personnel director in New York, where Giants coach Tom Coughlin taught him the value of having big guys on both sides of the ball. Gettleman gave Kuechly help this year, and indicated he might do the same for Newton in next year’s draft.
The Panthers haven’t added many pieces offensively during Newton’s three years, except to sign fullback Mike Tolbert last year and to cycle through No. 3 receivers each season. But with left tackle Jordan Gross playing in what could be his final season and questions at a couple of other offensive line spots, the Panthers almost certainly will be looking for more protectors for Newton.
“Tom Coughlin taught me the bottom line is big men allow you to compete. And if you take a look at the two Super Bowl teams last year, you looked at two teams that had heavy bodies on both sides of the ball,” Gettleman said.
“We’ll see what happens, no predictions about who we’re going to draft next year. We’ve done some real nice things defensively, and it’s reasonable to assume that we would address the offense.”
Carroll said he’s been amazed by Newton since he began his career with back-to-back, 400-yard passing performances against Arizona and Green Bay two years ago.
“I pulled that (Arizona) film out just to see how a guy could throw for 400 yards as a rookie in his opener, and then he did it the next week, as well. I watched that game, too,” Carroll said. “I’ve been watching him all along just because I’m fascinated by the talent he has and his ability to control games. He made those plays in Game 1 of his career and he’s still making plays.”
No one in NFL history has thrown for more yardage his first two seasons than Newton, who surpassed Peyton Manning’s two-year record last season with 106 fewer pass attempts. Last season he also became the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Donovan McNabb in 2000.
After Newton struggled with turnovers the first half of last season, he reeled off a team-record streak of 176 consecutive passes without an interception. He had 12 interceptions in 2012, down from 17 the previous year.
“Cam is still improving and ascending as far as I’m concerned,” Gettleman said. “He’s making good strides. I feel real good about him.”
Newton and Kuechly wouldn’t seem to have much in common. Newton has his own clothing line at Belk and a number of major endorsements, including Under Armour, Beats by Dre and Gatorade.
“I’m not stylish enough to have my own clothing line,” Kuechly said. “I’ve got a couple things I can throw on. Nothing like (Newton), though.” Kuechly has endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade.
Newton jokingly said Kuechly gives off a “nerdy vibe,” with his quiet earnestness in stark contrast to Newton’s personality.
“If Luke walked in here right now, he’s going to walk in here very modest and a loving guy and you’ll be like, ‘You’re a middle linebacker?’ And I’d walk in here the opposite. Come in here smiling, laughing, joking,” Newton said. “But on that field, you can’t even tell us apart. I look at Luke and I admire that approach that he goes about playing this game.”
Kuechly’s intensity is not unlike Newton’s. The two maintain a friendly competition during practices, judged mainly on whether Kuechly intercepts any of Newton’s passes.
Kuechly picked off one of Newton’s first training camp passes during the first practice at Spartanburg. He believes Newton is poised for a big season.
“Cam’s a great player and I think he’s improving every day. I notice a difference from last year to this year. He’s precise. He’s on top of the game,” Kuechly said.
Jonathan Jones contributed.