Panthers still have key leaders

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton's movement might be hampered by a walking boot to protect his left ankle, but his signature smile is as smooth as ever.

The quarterback for the Carolina Panthers said all the right things on Tuesday about offseason moves that left him without his top four wide receivers from last season.

He downplayed any role management's desire for him to become more of a leader had in the controversial release of Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver.

He talked about how scary good he could be playing without pain in the surgically repaired ankle for the first time since he left Auburn as the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

And he said it all with that infectious smile that makes you believe all will be good in Pantherland.

"We are all trying to accomplish one goal and one goal only -- to raise the Lombardi Trophy," Newton said on Tuesday, the team's second day of offseason workouts.

The Panthers are a long way from being a Super Bowl contender. They are a long way from being a playoff contender, particularly offensively with a new wide receiver corps, and new players at left and possibly right tackle if Byron Bell is able to successfully switch sides.

But at least they have Newton, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL. If he can progress as much between his third and fourth seasons as he did between his second and third, that should at least keep Carolina competitive on offense.

"No matter who or what the receivers look like, this is a team game," Newton said. "And we all are cautioned about what has been done in this offseason as far as acquisitions and trades and releases. But the fact is, we have our team right now.

"Am I happy about it? Absolutely. Am I ready to take on the challenge? Absolutely. Those guys are hungry, more than ever. And that’s what you want to see, not only in the receiver group, but in the tight end group and running back group, the offensive line group and quarterback group and defensively."

They are only words, but Newton has proven to be more than a big talker throughout his career. That is why when he says things will be all right in the post-Smith era, teammates believe him.

And what teammates believe really is more significant than the fan base that has been more than critical of the moves made by general manager Dave Gettleman after last season's 12-4 season.

You win with strong leaders, and in Newton the Panthers apparently have one. The smile magnifies it.

"The thing that you like is it's sincere," center Ryan Kalil said. "It's not something he puts on for show."

Newton was one of three players ushered in for interviews on Tuesday. The other two were Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Coincidence? Hardly.

Newton is the player coach Ron Rivera and Gettleman want to be more assertive as a leader. Kalil is the veteran expected to replace the locker room presence of retired left tackle Jordan Gross, although Kalil admits replacing Gross' pre-game speeches is a tall order.

And Kuechly is the defensive leader, not so much by what he says, but by what he does.

Those three are a big reason management believes the Panthers can put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history.

"I feel great about the guys that are stepping into those roles," Kalil said. "They're really good people. To me those are the best kinds of leaders.

"Even though Cam is someone who likes to get in front of the mic and thinks he's a lot more entertaining than he really is, he does a great job. I mean, the guy works hard day in and day out, in the classroom and on the field. Luke's the epitome of that. If those are going to be our leaders, then those are good leaders."

There remain big questions. Can Bell replace Gross? Can wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood equal or improve on the production of Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon? Can the defense remain a force for the second straight season with a makeshift secondary?

But there is no questioning the leadership. There is no questioning Newton's leadership after two-plus seasons of nothing but questions about it.

As Kuechly said, leading is about doing what's natural. Newton's smile and ability to elevate those around him is as natural as they come.

When he recovers from surgery to repair stretched tendons, Newton's natural ability to be a threat with his legs as well as his arm will play a big role as well.

"When I saw him yesterday, same old Cam, happy, running around, cracking jokes," Kuechly said of Newton, albeit there was no running around. "The biggest thing is he's excited to go out and play a football game.

"He's very confident this year in what he's doing, and it's going to show."

Newton, along with the core of the league's second-ranked defense, is why Gettleman had the confidence to make the offseason moves that made him a target for criticism.

It's way too early to tell if he's right, but Newton has the charisma to make it feel possible.

"We have a lot of guys that are hungry and ready to prove something in this league," Newton said. "And that’s what I want to do as well."