Panthers invest in Cam Newton by locking up Steve Smith

The Panthers' extension of wideout Steve Smith's contract on Tuesday helped provide some needed cap space and all but assured that the top offensive player in franchise history will end his career in Carolina.

But the move also was made to keep quarterback Cam Newton's growth curve on the proper track.

Besides a stable of daunting running backs that grew more formidable with the addition of fullback Mike Tolbert, Smith is pretty much it in terms of game-breaking threats for Carolina. And he's a needed security blanket for a quarterback who could be great.

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We're still waiting to see how spectacular Jay Cutler will be in Chicago because the Bears just got him the talented veteran receiver he's needed in Brandon Marshall. New York's Mark Sanchez has earned some of the grief that's rained down upon him, but he hasn't had a stable group of receivers in his three seasons with the Jets. (Talented? Yes. Stable? Not so much.)

On the flip side, the Falcons made sure to keep Roddy White locked up for Matt Ryan and even added Julio Jones to the mix to help their franchise QB. Detroit made sure that Calvin Johnson will be there to work in tandem with Matthew Stafford for the foreseeable future.

Having a good receiver can be a young quarterback's crutch, even if he doesn't have a great offensive line or a strong running game. Think Blaine Gabbert's rookie season would have been as bad if he wasn't saddled with players who were so anonymous opposing defenses didn't even have true scouting reports on them?

Based on recent history, having a veteran receiver seems far more helpful to a young quarterback than one near his age or experience level. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman had a big season in 2010 (25 touchdowns, six interceptions) with rookie receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. Last season, though, they all struggled when adversity hit. The offense lacked a veteran professional enough to manage chaos in the huddle or the meeting room.

The Ravens didn't wait too long to acquire Anquan Boldin for Joe Flacco and have continued to provide help in the receiver group, freshening things up with rookie Torrey Smith last season.

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An argument could be made that none of those quarterbacks has the upside of Newton -- especially with a productive player like Smith on his side.

While Smith is what Newton needs, don't think that the door doesn't swing both ways. After years of catching balls from Jake Delhomme, Smith is playing with a supremely gifted talent who is just scratching the surface. Smith's 79 catches in 2011 were his highest total since 2007, and the 1,394 yards he amassed were his most since 2008. Each benefits from the other and the Panthers are quite aware of that.

That's why Smith will be around for a few more years. It'd figure that Carolina would add even more to its receiving corps in the draft and maybe later in free agency. The Panthers have to protect themselves should Smith get hurt, and they also must diversify their offense. Newton has 16 starts on game film for defenses to dissect -- and teams will adjust.

Having Smith around will make that process much easier.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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