Smith a huge factor in Newton’s success

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. Newton’s amazing rookie season generated weekly attention throughout the NFL, but it’s possible things would have turned out quite differently if the sometimes-volatile Smith didn’t sign off on Newton and decide he’d 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 Newton’s transition to a starting quarterback in the NFL.

It didn’t 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 a score. Naanee, who spent his first four seasons with the San Diego Chargers, figures prominently in the Panthers’ plans.

Rookie Kealoha Pilares from Hawai’i played in 12 games and returned some kicks. He had no receptions, though Pilares will have an opportunity to make next year’s team. Armanti Edwards, on the other hand, still hasn’t caught a pass in two seasons, and he will have to work very hard to make next year’s 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 Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.

Olsen caught 45 passes for 540 yards and five scores in his fifth NFL season and first in Charlotte. Shockey grabbed 37 balls for 455 yards and four touchdowns. At 31, he probably still has a couple more quality years left. He’s in terrific shape, is the consummate competitor and was a good teammate this past season.

Ben Hartstock, 31, didn’t see much action, and his time with Carolina could be up in the air. 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 franchise’s brass is still interested in drafting another receiver this April.