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Carolina Panthers have been gutted at wide receiver, so where do they turn now?

We have chronicled what the larger significance of cutting Steve Smith means to the Carolina Panthers in an earlier post, and we stand by the notion that Smith was let go — and paid handsomely while being shuttled out the door — for non-football reasons primarily. 

But we now can sit back and try to make sense of what the Panthers' vision is for the immediate future. It's difficult to process as things stand currently.

[Be sure to check out Shutdown Corner's NFL free-agent rankings. Click here for the list of offensive players, and click here for the list of defensive and special teams players]

The Panthers now have watched their top four receivers from a year ago walk away this offseason. Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon all have new teams. That's a combined 156 receptions, 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns. That represents 53.4 percent (receptions), 58.7 percent (receiving yards) and 62.5 percent (TD passes) of Cam Newton's 2013 production. Those receivers also combined for all but 55 yards and four catches of the receiving production in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Greg Olsen is back. He was the Panthers' leading receiver at tight end a year ago. Running backs Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams combined for 53 catches and 517 yards and three TDs receiving a year ago. After that, it's scraps. Not another receiver still on the roster caught a pass last season.

Here's what's left at wideout: Marvin McNutt, Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons, Tavarres King, R.J. Webb, Brenton Bersin. Combined career NFL statistics of the six men: 29 games played, five catches, 83 yards, one touchdown.

Hakeem Nicks got away for one year, $3.5 million. He said the Panthers' offer didn't stack up to that.

Is GM Dave Gettleman planning on running the ball every play?

There remain some options out there:

• Free agents such as James Jones, Miles Austin, Sidney Rice, Santonio Holmes and others remain unemployed. The Panthers can be thrifty and perhaps sign one or two, hoping one of them goes for a "prove it" deal and can step in as one of Newton's first or second options. That approach landed the Panthers safety Mike Mitchell a year ago (oh yeah, he also got away this offseason ... for $5 million guaranteed, replacing him with aged Roman Harper) and might be the way they go here.

• The draft clearly will be focused on wideouts, and thankfully for them, it's one of the deeper classes in memory. There should be a good player for them at No. 28 overall, and there might be starting-caliber talent lasting into Round 4. But the Panthers also need major support in the secondary, where they lost Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn, and on the offensive line, where three players retired, including Jordan Gross.

• The Panthers also will be on the lookout for veteran help, we assume, through the preseason. That depends on what they are able to do in the draft and how the group shapes up in training camp, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they add to this position as late as after final cutdowns.

What must Newton be thinking right now?

We believe he was fine with Smith going. Their relationship had run its course. Smith challenged Newton to be a better leader, and Newton occasionally rankled at that. But to lose so much receiving talent and blocking depth threatens to throw off the cohesion of the offense.

Gettleman tied his own hands when Hardy was tagged and immediately signed his one-year tender. That was a $13 million road block. But Gettleman also botched the Smith departure on several levels, let Mitchell walk for fairly cheap and also watched several free agents the Panthers liked (such as Nicks and offensive tackle Anthony Collins) get away for reasonable dollars. 

Tough pill to swallow so far for Panthers fans, who were just getting used to the idea of their team being a contender after a 12-4 season.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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