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Ron Rivera let Cam Newton be Cam Newton, and that's great news for Dwayne Haskins

Ron Rivera let Cam Newton be Cam Newton, and that's great news for Dwayne Haskins

Ron Rivera and Cam Newton began their Panthers careers at the same time in 2011. Newton as the No. 1 overall pick fresh from a national championship at Auburn, and Rivera a rookie head coach with a defensive background. 

The pairing worked well in Carolina for years, and eventually included a Super Bowl trip, but much of that relationship had to be established in their first season. 

It's almost hard to remember that back in 2011 there were questions about Newton's ability to succeed in the NFL, including some ugly anonymous comments about his future during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine. Newton proved all that noise very wrong, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season and later winning the 2015 NFL MVP award. 

Newton obviously can play and succeed in the NFL, and Rivera's belief in his ability was a huge part. Newton said as much after the Panthers fired Rivera earlier this year.

"This one hurt deep," Newton said via his Instagram page. "Will be forever grateful because of the impact you had on my life. Thank you for giving me an opportunity. Thank you for believing in me. I can go on and on, but most importantly, thank you for allowing me to be me."

Plenty of players talked about Rivera in glowing terms, Josh Norman and Gerald McCoy among them, but everyone knows that the quarterback position is the most important on a football team. Rivera is a defensive guy, so his relationship with the QB will never be completely about scheme, or completion percentage, or any of the minutiae that drowns so many pro passers.

Rivera is about actual human relationships, and his bond with Newton could be truly important for Redskins rookie passer Dwayne Haskins. 

As a rookie, Newton found significantly more success than Haskins. Their first-year numbers don't even compare:

  • Cam Newton (2011) - 16 starts, 60 percent completion rate, 4,051 passing yards, 21 TDs, 17 INTs
  • Dwayne Haskins (2019) - 7 starts, 58 percent completion rate, 1,365 passing yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs

Again, this isn't about comparing numbers. Rivera embraced Newton as his starting quarterback from Day One. Haskins barely got coached until halfway through his rookie season. 

Former Redskins coach Jay Gruden did not want to draft Haskins; the coach made that clear. When the rookie struggled in training camp and the preseason, he got shoved to the end of the bench.

When Gruden was fired after an 0-5 start, interim head coach Bill Callahan devoted more time towards Haskins' development. Whether that was Callahan's decision or something he was told to do is irrelevant now. It worked. By the end of the season, Haskins looked like a different player than the sheepish rookie that threw three interceptions in a Week 4 relief appearance in New York.

In his last six quarters, Haskins completed 72 percent of his passes for 394 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. What might be an even bigger sign of growth was that Haskins took just three sacks in his last two starts compared to nine sacks in the two starts prior. 

Haskins showed a ton of improvement late in the year, and that's plenty for Redskins fans to be excited about. It sounds like he will get to continue to work with offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell too.

Beyond that, however, with Ron Rivera on board, Haskins should finally have the full support of his head coach. Ask Cam Newton how much that means. 

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    Redskins Free Agent Targets: Darqueze Dennard

    Redskins Free Agent Targets: Darqueze Dennard

    NBC Sports Washington is taking a long look at potential free agents that could help the Redskins in 2020. 

    Cincinnati Bengals CB Darqueze Dennard
    2014 first-round pick by Cincinnati
    Unrestricted free agent
    5-foot-11 | 200 lbs. | 28 years old

    Cornerback is a significant need for the Washington Redskins and one they were likely expected to address in free agency. With the release of veteran Josh Norman last Friday, upgrading the position now becomes a necessity. 

    One cornerback the Burgundy and Gold should target in free agency is a name many Redskins fans are not familiar with: Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

    The 28-year-old was drafted in 2014 and has spent all six of his NFL seasons with the Bengals. During his time in Cinci, he played the majority of his snaps from the slot but proved he has the ability to play on the outside as well. The 5-foot-11 cornerback has a strong frame and is one of the best at his position defending the run. 

    Injuries have hampered Dennard throughout his career, but he's been productive when on the field.

    Last season, although he played in just nine games, Dennard posted the 15th best coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. The 28-year-old excelled in coverage downfield, allowing just four catches of 10 or more yards all season. In contrast, Redskins' cornerbacks posted the fourth-worst grade by PFF in such situations.

    Dennard was a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but never blossomed to the shutdown cornerback the Bengals hoped they drafted. Nonetheless, he's a very viable starter and one that could greatly benefit a Washington secondary that struggled mightily a season ago.

    As it stands now, the Redskins starters at cornerback are Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau starting on the outside with Jimmy Moreland in the slot. 

    Dunbar, who had a career-best season a year ago, was rumored to request a trade from the Redskins a couple of weeks ago. He later backtracked on his statement, saying the situation had been blown out of proportion.

    Regardless, Dunbar enters his final season under contract with Washington and has zero guarantees remaining in his contract; there's no assurance he's back with Washington in 2021 and beyond. Moreau also enters the final season of his rookie year as well.

    So, the Redskins likely need to sign at least one, if not two, cornerbacks in free agency. Dennard could be an ideal fit and a cheaper option than other cornerbacks on the market.

    Head coach Ron Rivera said that part of the reason he released Norman was so the team could get younger at the position, and at 28, Dennard still has plenty of football ahead of him.

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    Questions facing Ron Rivera: What will cornerback look like now that Josh Norman is gone?

    Questions facing Ron Rivera: What will cornerback look like now that Josh Norman is gone?

    With Josh Norman no longer a Redskin and Quinton Dunbar seemingly unhappy with his standing on the team, cornerback is an issue that's rising up Ron Rivera's lengthy to-do list.

    Finding a solution to the Trent Williams dilemma, making sure Dwayne Haskins has what he needs to succeed and figuring out what to do with the No. 2 draft pick are all likely ahead of fixing corner on the coach's list, and rightly so.

    That said, he probably now has circled CB and drawn an upward arrow next to it, indicating its increasing prominence.

    The Norman release was an easy place for the team's new leader to begin. While it would've been intriguing to see Rivera try to reinvigorate Norman's career, No. 24's age, decline in speed and salary all made him extremely expendable. Still, it does mean the franchise is now without a DB who started the overwhelming majority of games in the past four seasons.

    Next, Rivera will have to get an idea about how another starter is feeling.

    While Dunbar has apparently backed off his recent trade demand, it's clear he's not pleased with the money he's making and is also a bit insecure about where he stands in this new version of the organization. Can Rivera change his opinion, either by initiating a contract adjustment or calming Dunbar's mind about his future, or will the receiver-turned-defender be moved this offseason, too?

    The ending of that storyline will obviously impact the entire depth chart in a big way.

    Those are the two important secondary pieces who wore Burgundy and Gold in 2019 that Rivera focused on (in Norman's case) or will soon focus on (in Dunbar's case). Others from 2019, like Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland, will return and contribute in their own right.

    But there are also lots of guys who wore lots of different colors last year who'll soon be worth monitoring in free agency as well. Fortunately, there'll be plenty of targets for Rivera and Kyle Smith, depending on how aggressive they want to be.

    There are the well-known names who are about to cash in, like James Bradberry, a former Panther who's already stated that he wouldn't mind a reunion with Rivera if he can't work out a deal with Carolina. Chris Harris also falls into this classification.

    Then there are some mid-tier options, such as Bashaud Breeland. Breeland was drafted by the Redskins and recently won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs. He also was slated to sign with the then Rivera-coached Panthers a few offseasons ago before a fluky injury voided that agreement. Bradley Roby and Darqueze Dennard are in a similar place as Breeland.

    Beyond those groups, there are even cheaper free agents as well as later draft picks. Looking ahead, as long as the Redskins keep the second pick in this April's draft, they won't be selecting a cornerback. That, plus the fact that they don't have a second-rounder as of now, means whatever prospects they end up with will come later in the event.

    As two former linebackers, Rivera and Jack Del Rio surely understand the significance of fortifying and in turn want to fortify the front line of their defense, and they are one Chase Young choice away from doing so. They'll also be keen on improving their old stomping grounds to ensure the middle of the unit is reliable.

    However, cornerback can't be overlooked. With the way the NFL has slanted toward the offense during the last decade and the continued influx of talent at wideout and tight end, having multiple corners who can match up with those pass catchers is a must. Because of that, corner should certainly be close to the center of Rivera's mind.

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