September 09, 2015

First, the good news: The Carolina Panthers had a focused, determined and fully healthy Cam Newton for an entire training camp.

Now, the bad news: Newton's top receiving target from last season is out for 2015.

The two-time defending NFC South champions still have plenty of optimism heading into Sunday's opener at the Jacksonville Jaguars, mainly because of their franchise quarterback's confidence.

Newton missed the first game of 2014 recovering from various injuries and another in December before the Panthers won their last four and beat Arizona at home in the wild-card round. He signed a five-year, $103.8 million extension in the offseason, and he's not taking lightly the responsibility that comes with that type of contract.

Not only does Newton want to continue being a dual threat - his 2,571 yards and 33 touchdowns rushing by far are the most among NFL quarterbacks since he entered the league in 2011 - but his goal is to complete 65-70 percent of his passes. He's never completed better than 61.7.

"I'm ready to go," Newton said. "There are a lot of guys in that huddle, including myself, that are anticipating the start of the season (and) embracing the whole process, not just Sundays.

"It's about guys living up to their potential. We have to be able to live up to it. As long as we do our job the way we know how, it's going to be fun."

The hodgepodge of receivers he'll be throwing to, though, could put a wrinkle in his plans. Kelvin Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie last season, but he tore his ACL in camp.

That leaves Ted Ginn Jr., who has just 83 catches while starting five games for three different teams over the last five seasons, and Corey Brown as the starters. Brown had 21 receptions as an undrafted rookie last season.

Tight end Greg Olsen again will play a major role in the passing game. Second-round pick Devin Funchess should get his opportunities while Jerricho Cotchery hopes to contribute as well. They're all part of an offense that now has Jonathan Stewart as its feature back after DeAngelo Williams was released in the offseason.

Luke Kuechly, who on Thursday agreed to a five-year, $62 million extension that would make him the league's highest-paid middle linebacker, and Thomas Davis again anchor a solid defense for Carolina, which faces a Jacksonville team eager to shake the label of perennial bottom-feeder.

The Jaguars have won seven games in coach Gus Bradley's first two seasons and finished 31st in total offense with 289.6 yards per game in 2014. Blake Bortles took over at quarterback early in his rookie season and was sacked a league-high 55 times.

Jacksonville has plenty of young talent, though, and knows its time to start producing victories.

''We're going to surprise some people,'' tight end Marcedes Lewis said. ''(Losing stinks), but at the same time, if you continue to focus on that, you're going to be there again. Right now, we have the right makeup in this locker room, and it's exciting to be part of it.''

Bortles won't have two-time Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas for at least three games because of a broken hand, but second-year receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson are prepared to carry the load in the passing game with Marqise Lee also out for the opener.

Second-round pick T.J. Yeldon beat out Denard Robinson and Toby Gerhart for the starting running back job despite seeing limited action in the preseason.

"I think it's a really good room," Bortles told the team's official website. "It's obviously a young room and a talented room, but I have trust in every single guy in that room and I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do."

How the Jaguars will fare defensively is another issue. They took end Dante Fowler Jr. with the third overall pick, but he tore his ACL in rookie camp and will be out for the year.

Tackle Sen'Derrick Marks won't play in the opener and could be out a few more weeks after having offseason knee surgery, and end Andre Branch has a sprained MCL that will keep him out until at least Week 4.

Jacksonville ranked 26th in total defense in 2014 allowing 370.8 yards per game and was 29th in opposing quarterback rating at 99.1.

"What's unique this game is Cam Newton," Bradley said. "He is a quarterback that will pull it and run, and he's a big body-type quarterback that you better have a plan for him."

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