Cam Newton's challenge is clear

This is a big year for Cam Newton. There's no way around it.

Newton made a huge leap from Year 2 to Year 3 in his NFL career. He became a leader. He became more of a pocket passer. And he helped his Carolina Panthers turn a 1-3 start to the 2013 season into a 12-4 finish and an NFC South title.

The season could have gone south quickly. The team could have turned on coach Ron Rivera. But the Panthers didn't, and part of the credit for that goes to Newton, who assumed responsibility for the team and didn't let it fracture.

This season will be even bigger. It will show whether Newton is ready to take the next step, whether he is the type of quarterback who should be discussed as one of the game's best, whether he is the type who, like Tom Brady, can make his teammates better rather than relying on his teammates to make him better.

Newton will have his work cut out for him.

The Panthers made the calculated -- albeit risky and unpopular -- decision to overhaul their receiving corps. They determined, rightfully so, that after 13 seasons with the team Steve Smith was no longer a viable No. 1 option. He was at best a No. 2 with the personality and ego of a No. 1.

In free agency, the Panthers also lost Brandon LaFell, who underperformed by catching 49 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns in 2013. Although Ted Ginn Jr. proved to be more of a threat than he had been the previous season in San Francisco, Carolina was not willing to pay big money for a player who caught 36 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns. And Domenik Hixon was a nonfactor with seven catches for 55 yards and one touchdown.

The mass exodus of receivers was jarring, not so much because they had massively produced. They hadn't. Collectively, the four players who walked out the door were subpar against winning teams last season, as a group averaging 10 catches and 124.7 yards against Seattle, Arizona, San Francisco, New England and New Orleans twice.

What is jarring is that the team was so willing to remove all of Newton's primary wide receiver targets. It took away the chemistry. It took away the familiarity.

Carolina has not yet replaced Smith. As the roster stands, there is not a No. 1 receiver among the group. In free agency, the team signed Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. It is banking on other young receivers on the roster blossoming into viable options, and it is likely planning on selecting at least one receiver in next month's draft.

Even if the Panthers use their first-round pick on a receiver -- which is possible but unlikely, given their need at offensive tackle -- that is a lot of receivers with whom Newton must familiarize himself quickly and without the benefit of offseason workouts, organized team activities and minicamp.

Although Newton said earlier this week that he is a rapid healer and that his surgically repaired left ankle is progressing, the Panthers have given no timetable for Newton to begin throwing. That probably won't happen until training camp begins, at the earliest.

If that is the case, Newton would have only weeks to develop chemistry and rapport with his new receivers. That would make every training camp practice and every preseason game crucial to the team's development.

The good news for Carolina is that Newton seems to understand the position he is in and the importance he holds on the team. He said that he is using his time to watch more tape than ever before. He is studying. He is asking questions, and he is more than willing to assume more "ownership," as he said, of coordinator Mike Shula's offense.

"It is something we want from all our guys, to take ownership," Rivera said. "But because he is our quarterback, it has more significance."

That it does.

The thing the Panthers don't want to happen is for Newton to feel like he has to run to be productive. Although he is dynamic in the open field, a running Newton could become an injured Newton, and that would not be good for anybody.

The optimal scenario is that tight ends Greg Olsen, who led the Panthers with 73 catches for 816 yards and six touchdowns last season, and newly acquired Ed Dickson establish themselves as reliable options for Newton early. That would lift some of the pressure off the receivers and allow them to integrate into the offense.

Newton would be wise to listen to what another quarterback had to say last preseason about the bevy of new receivers with whom he had to work. This quarterback didn't have a true No. 1 at his disposal. Like Newton, he had unproven guys to mold.

"Well," he said, "you've got to develop some trust in each other, and they've got to know that I trust them and care about them and care about what they're doing. So we're trying to build a rapport with one another, spending time together -- and that's with all players, not just the young players. That's how teams develop."

That was Brady in August.

The question is, can Newton, like Brady, make the players around him better? Can he be the difference-maker? Can he elevate them, instead of needing them to elevate him?

The Panthers are betting Newton can, risky as it is. Brady guided the Patriots to the playoffs last season and even won a game, but ultimately he didn't have enough help.

Will Newton? Carolina is poised to find out.