Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, left, shares a laugh with general manager Dave Gettleman, right, after a practice during the NFL team's minicamp in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton
June 18, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Ron Rivera said the Carolina Panthers are well ahead of where they were last season in terms of preparation for the season in large part due to the health of quarterback Cam Newton.

Newton participated in all offseason practices this spring and has taken ''some really big steps,'' according to Rivera, the team's fifth-year coach.

That wasn't the case last season.

Newton missed all but one of the team's OTA and minicamp practices in 2014 while recovering from ankle surgery setting back the team's ability to build chemistry. The 26-year-old seems to making up for lost time. Rivera pointed to Newton's practice earlier this week as one of his best in five years.

''He had some really good days,'' Rivera said Thursday as the Panthers wrapped up their final practice before training camp.

The focus for Newton has been improving his accuracy, decision-making and footwork.

His 58.5 completion percentage ranked 29th in the league last season and he's been widely criticized for his tendency to throw off his back foot, which often results in overthrows.

''He's got such a strong arm that on certain throws he doesn't have to really get his feet set,'' Rivera said. ''We're working on getting his feet in proper position and stepping into throws.''

In the past, Newton also had a tendency to throw downfield even when things weren't open.

Rivera also said Newton is doing a better job this year of reading defenses, being patient and dumping the ball off when receivers are covered downfield.

''He likes the flash plays,'' Rivera said. ''With his ability to stay upright, he tends to stick with a guy too long. He's learning that, `Hey, if I don't have a guy right away let's give it to one of our guys and let him catch it and run.' We've got guys that can make you miss.''

Newton said he's needed to improve his footwork and trust his teammates.

The fifth-year quarterback is feeling good physically and likes where the team is at entering the summer break. The Panthers are looking for a third straight NFC South championship.

''This was one of our better camps, and for me to be out there and get the reps that I wasn't able to get last year, it felt great,'' said Newton, who recently signed a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension.

Rivera knows Newton is still a work in progress.

But he likes the way he's progressing.

''It's all part of his growth,'' Rivera said. ''Again, he's a young man. He came into this league after playing only one year of major-college football. He wasn't as advanced as your Russell Wilsons or your Andrew Lucks that played four and five (college) seasons. I think his development is really headed in the right direction.''

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