CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Quarterback Cam Newton plans to take more ownership of the Carolina Panthers' offense without his top four receivers from last season.
Steve Smith, the franchise's all-time leading receiver, was released and free agents Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon signed with other teams, putting more pressure on Newton to take more of a leadership role entering his fourth season.
"I'm excited to take this challenge to be this team's leader," Newton said. "More has been given to me on my plate (and) be a leader of men."
Newton spoke Tuesday at the team stadium during a break from offseason condition workouts, his first extensive interview since the Panthers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 23-10 in the NFC divisional playoffs in January. Newton's left foot remains in a walking boot after having ankle surgery on March 19.
He said he was "surprised" when he learned the Panthers had released Smith, one of the team's most popular players.
"If you were in the 704 (area code), you were caught by surprise," Newton said. "Everybody in the Carolinas was surprised, including myself."
He said he still communicates with Smith, and hopes the 34-year-old receiver finds success with the Baltimore Ravens. But Newton emphasized the need to move forward as a team.
He said he's excited about working with a "hungry" group of receivers that includes Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. It's possible the Panthers will add a wide receiver or two in the NFL draft next month.
"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."
Newton was selected to the Pro Bowl last season after leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and the NFC South championship.
But concerns linger over how long it will take Newton to develop chemistry with a new group of wide receivers, especially considering he's not expected to practice until training camp.
But an upbeat Newton downplayed any concerns.
"We will have plenty of time to develop chemistry with receivers," Newton said. "Just because it's organized team functions doesn't mean that we can't (also) meet on our own."