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Rivera on board with Panthers' WR exodus

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Steve Smith has a lot of football left in him, according to his former head coach, it just won't be with the Carolina Panthers.

Gone, too, are Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon, who all bolted Carolina during free agency for greener pastures. That's a combined 156 receptions from last season - or 99.4 percent of the wideout production.

Richie Brockel contributed a catch, and at least he's still on the roster.

Thus far, general manager David Gettleman has plugged the holes with 11th-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery and sixth-year veteran Tiquan Underwood, who are both best served working in a slot role.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera insists it is all part of the plan, and he's not overly concerned with losing the team's top four wideout from last season.

"Look at it this way - last year we rushed 15 out of 16 games for 100 yards," Rivera said at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando on Wednesday. "We were fourth in the league in total time of possession. Our receivers averaged - as a group, collectively - 10 catches a game.

"We have to replace those 10 catches a game. If we are going to continue to run the ball successfully, on the average, we have to make 10 catches a game. I want to say the average for that group was a little over 10 yards a catch."

Yes, the Panthers lack a No. 1 receiver on the current roster, and are likely to add multiple receivers during the May 8-10 draft. But reading between the lines, it sounds as though Rivera doesn't believe the Panthers lost any irreplaceable receivers.

He admitted Smith is still a playmaker, but one who has lost some of his vertical speed. LaFell? Rivera described the New England Patriots' new receiver as a "steady player, very smart, headsy guy." Hardly sounds like Rivera is generating ulcers trying to figure out how to replace his starters from last season.

Ginn enjoyed a rebound 2013 season, and parlayed it into a deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Domenik Hixon is a steady veteran, but only produced seven catches last season.

The most controversial move by far was releasing Smith, the fiery veteran who was often accused in the media of being a distraction but was also an unquestioned leader of a relatively young offense.

"What I will say is there has been change and change is all part of it," Rivera said about addressing Smith's departure with the team. "This has been very hard because of what Steve has meant to me personally. In dealing with Steve, I was grateful for that opportunity. He's meant a lot to this franchise and a lot to me. It'll be tough but I won't address it specifically about just him, because Mike Mitchell was a big part of what we did. Teddy Ginn really helped a lot. Jordan Senn was part of my first team. Brandon LaFell is one of my favorites. We've lost some guys that we had to let go just because that's the business of football."

Not only is Carolina revamping its wide receiver corps, but the new group won't have an opportunity to work with Cam Newton during the offseason program as the quarterback recovers from ankle surgery.

Whoever the Panthers add during free agency and the draft will have to develop quick chemistry with Newton during training camp.

"He's going to have to find other ways to engage with those guys," Rivera said. "I think it'll be an opportunity for him to take a step back, look at the way things are being done and learn that way. It's all part of his maturing process. I think it will be a good way for him to develop another way. We signed Joe Webb to find out exactly what he can do for us in our system. He's very similar in style of play to Cam so we can continue to develop that part of our offense."

Rivera is convinced the Panthers are headed in the right direction in terms of the roster, and it's still March. There is free agency, the draft and post-June 1 cuts to continue to bolster the wide receiver unit.

"There are some things that we have to do," said Rivera. "In talking with Dave, we still have time in free agency, time in the draft coming up. And we have some guys on the roster that we are hoping will take the next step and develop.

"The thing a lot of people don't understand is we are not done."
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