Selecting Cam Newton with the top overall draft pick last April was the most important offseason move among many by the Carolina Panthers. Hiring Ron Rivera as head coach was another, as was veteran wide receiver Steve Smith deciding to remain a Panther while embracing Newton.
The latter got plenty of play regionally, but not nationally. Newtons amazing rookie season generated weekly attention throughout the NFL, but its possible things would have turned out quite differently if the sometimes-volatile Smith didnt sign off on Newton and decided hed play rather play elsewhere.
Smith helped Newton become one of the guys pretty quickly, and Newton gave Smith a reason to stick around. The franchise has a future, and Smith, now 32, buying in should forever be regarded as a key factor in Newtons transition to a starting quarterback in the NFL.
It didnt take long for Smith to become a Newton fan and supporter, and that union helped the veteran turn in an All-Pro season.
We talked about (his future) and it was a great conversation, Rivera said about Smith last fall. He really voiced his opinion and concerns about us and about what we had gone through the last couple of years. I just told him to give us a chance and let things unfold.
Carolina won six games and easily could have reached eight or nine victories with a defensive stop here and there.
Brandon LaFell continued to develop in his second season. He had 36 receptions for 613 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a 60-yard run from scrimmage.
Legadu Naanee, in his fifth season from Boise State, nearly doubled his previous season-high in receptions with 44. He also had 467 yards receiving and one score. Naanee, who spent his first four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, figures prominently in the Panthers plans.
Rookie Kealoha Pilares from Hawaii played in 12 games and returned some kicks, but he had no receptions, though Pilares will have an opportunity to make next years team. Armanti Edwards, on the other hand, still hasnt caught a pass in two seasons, and he will have to work very hard to make next years roster.
David Gettis caught 37 passes in 2010 but missed last season with a knee injury.
The tight ends are also included in this group, and the Panthers have some excellent ones, notably in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
Olsen caught 45 passes for 540 yards and five scores in his fifth NFL season, first in Charlotte. Shockey grabbed 37 balls for 455 yards and four touchdowns. At 31, Shockey probably still has a couple more quality years left. Hes in terrific shape, is the consummate competitor, and was a good teammate this past season.
Ben Hartstock, 31, didnt see much action and his time with Carolina could be up in the air, and Richie Brockel, who scored one of the more memorable touchdowns in the Panthers win at Houston, will be in camp in August.
The Panthers are in solid shape at wide receiver and excellent shape at tight end. The word from the Queen City, though, is that the franchises brass are interested in drafting a receiver this April.