Panthers back-to work FYI

Readiness factor: No team in the NFC South faces a bigger challenge than the Panthers. They’ve got a new head coach (Ron Rivera) and new offensive and defensive systems. They’ve also got a very young team that has yet to work with the coaching staff. Teams with a new head coach are allowed a little extra offseason work, but the Panthers missed out on all of that. They were 2-14 last season, and it already looks like they’ll be playing catch-up throughout training camp and the preseason.

Biggest challenge: The Panthers drafted Cam Newton at No. 1 overall and they sure sounded like they wanted him to be the opening-day starter. That’s still possible, and Newton’s going to get every benefit of the doubt. But he needs to use training camp and the preseason to show he has at least some grasp of the offense before the Panthers will be willing to put him on the field. If Newton’s not ready, the Panthers might have to turn to Jimmy Clausen, who also has no experience in this offensive system. Or they might even have to bring in a veteran to at least start the first few games to buy Newton and Clausen some time.

Where’s Smitty? There have been conflicting reports about whether veteran wide receiver Steve Smith wants to stay with Carolina, the only team he’s ever played for. The ball really is in Smith’s court. The Panthers don’t feel they have to get rid of him, but they don’t want him stuck in a situation where he’s unhappy. It would be understandable if Smith, an intensely competitive guy, wants to go to a more experienced team. Smith’s had months to think about what he wants to do. As soon as it’s possible, he needs to sit down with the Panthers’ brass and let them know what he wants. If he wants to stay, they’ll be thrilled because it would give Newton and Clausen a top-notch receiver. If Smith wants out, the Panthers will try to accommodate him, but they’ll only let him go if they can get something decent in return.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Thomas Davis and linebacker James Anderson.