CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - As Cam Newton galloped on to the practice field flashing that contagious smile, his teammates fell in line behind him for the start of drills.
Their leader had arrived.
The multi-talented quarterback who took the NFL by storm a year ago, earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, appears ready to take on a bigger role this year with the Carolina Panthers - even if he's unwilling to admit it.
Newton remains cognizant of the veteran players around him and steered clear of drawing attention to himself when asked if he now views this as ``his team.''
``It's a lot of people's team,'' he said.
But to those in and around the organization, it's pretty clear Newton is quickly turning into the leader of this franchise and the guy capable of taking the Panthers to the next level after a 6-10 finish last season - a four-game improvement over the year before.
Rather than declare himself a leader, Newton prefers to keep his head down and lead through his actions.
``The playmakers are going to have to make plays; the leaders are going to have lead - if you have to ask yourself what you are, you're neither,'' said Newton. ``So I think it's kind of a given who the leaders on this team are.''
Coach Ron Rivera has seen Newton take on a leadership role through the way he's interacted with teammates and encouraged them during offseason conditioning drills.
``He's really maturing and becoming what you hope for in your starting quarterback,'' Rivera said. ``You're seeing a continued evolution based on what happened at the end of last year.''
After suffering through a glut of injuries on defense early last season, the Panthers rallied to win four of their final six games.
That's provided plenty of optimism heading into this season.
The former Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn is a big reason for that.
He became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 500 last season and broke Peyton Manning's rookie record for yards passing in a season with 4,051. On top of that he proved to be one of most dangerous players in the game by rushing for 14 touchdowns - the most ever by an NFL quarterback.
It makes you wonder what Newton can accomplish with an actual offseason to prepare for the regular season.
That's a luxury he didn't have last year.
Because of the NFL lockout, he and other rookies didn't get a chance to practice with their new teammates until late July.
``Last year I was just working out (in the spring) with a couple of pages from the playbook to go by and that's it,'' Newton said. ``It's nothing like having an organized team function that you can talk to your coaches and ask them about the things that are going to make you a better player. To come out here every day and get some reps, mental or physical, is huge.''
There's a school of thought that top-notch NFL defensive coordinators - as well as players - will catch up to Newton after an offseason studying him on tape.
He thinks Newton's success will ultimately be determined by the supporting cast around him.
``Everyone wants to say `Hey, Cam is going to have a sophomore slump' or `They're going to have tape on your offense,' well you know what, other people have to step up, too,'' Rivera said.
A year ago, the Panthers averaged 25.4 points to per game, fifth-best in the league. They improved 25 spots in total offense, going from 32nd to seventh overall.
In Newton's eyes there's plenty of room for improvement.
``That's the recipe, trying to find a way to put up more points and making it easier for us,'' Newton said. ``We understand the defense is going to be 100 percent healthy and that's not going to be an excuse this year. As an offense we can only control what we can control. Executing the play that coach calls and knowing our assignments.''
The Panthers lost defensive tackle Ron Edwards in his first practice of training camp last summer. That proved to be a foreshadowing of things to come as linebackers Jon Beason (torn Achilles) and Thomas Davis (torn ACL) suffered season-ending injuries in the first two games.
Beason and Davis were back on the practice field Thursday, participating on a limiting basis. Rivera expects Beason will be full-go when training camp arrives and Davis will work in gradually.
``The nicks and bruises are in the past and everybody is fixed up,'' Newton said. ``We need the leadership of the guys that were hurt.''
And the Panthers will need Newton's leadership, too.
Even if he's not quite ready to admit it.
``People will gravitate to who's been making plays and who's accountable and who puts a lot on their plate to make plays,'' Newton said. ``So I think leadership will rise to the top.''