Panthers in minority regarding Smith

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh isn't concerned that wide receiver Steve Smith could be a distraction in his locker room. He's also not concerned the Carolina Panthers' all-time leading receiver can't handle being a role player.

In fact, Harbaugh said Smith will be a plus for team chemistry, helping with the development of the team's young receivers by setting an example with his work ethic.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy, who was the wide receivers coach at Carolina during Smith's rookie season (2001) and later the team's passing coordinator, said the Ravens are lucky to have Smith. He said he has nothing but respect for Smith.

Denver coach John Fox, head coach for nine of Smith's first 10 seasons at Carolina, said the same things about Smith.

Everybody I've talked to at the NFL owners meetings who has had a relationship with Smith, who will turn 35 in May, says the 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver still has something to offer -- on and off the field.

Yet the Panthers cut him in the best long-term interests of the team.

Nobody was critical of Carolina's decision. They all gave the standard we-all-make-tough-decisions reply.

But it makes you wonder more than ever what the Panthers were thinking when they decided to move on without Smith, particularly since Carolina's next three wide receivers were in the process of moving to other teams in free agency.

Smith's release remains one of the more puzzling offseason moves in the NFL. It wasn't like the decision saved the team a ton of money under the salary cap. You can't sign a receiver of his caliber for $2 million.

That the Panthers basically are paying Smith $5 million to play for the Ravens makes it even more puzzling to many here at the meetings.

That New England, Seattle, San Diego and Washington all were hoping for a shot at Smith is even more evidence he still has value.

Yes, teams make hard decisions. As Harbaugh says, it was "painful" last year when the Ravens traded Anquan Boldin to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick to dump his large salary.

The pain came in that the Ravens, as Harbaugh admitted late this past season, weren't able to replace Boldin. They went from a Super Bowl team to 8-8 and third in the AFC North.

Carolina (12-4 in 2013) could be facing a similar situation if it can't replace Smith. So far, it hasn't, and there are no signs it will.

The Panthers signed Pittsburgh free agent Jerricho Cotchery, a player coach Mike Tomlin says can help develop young receivers. But Cotchery never has played at Smith's level.

Carolina's next most experienced receiver is Tiquan Underwood, a little-known free agent from Tampa Bay.

According to sources, the Panthers have no interest in trading for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, a top-tier wide receiver. So despite pleas from Carolina management to be patient, there are no clear signs the team will strengthen its wide receiver corps.

That will put even more pressure on quarterback Cam Newton, who is out for the next four months recovering from ankle surgery. The Panthers needed to surround him with better weapons, not fewer.

Baltimore has added a weapon in Smith, despite reports the Panthers were concerned about Smith being a distraction.

"Through our investigations, I guess you could call it, we came away feeling really good about the impact Steve is going to have on our team in that way," Harbaugh said Tuesday during the AFC coaches breakfast. "He's a tough competitor. He's a mature, grown man. He's a family man. He's a man of faith.

"I think the world of him. I always have."

Harbaugh developed a relationship with Smith 13 years ago when Harbaugh was the special teams coordinator at Philadelphia. He used to talk to Smith, then primarily a kick returner, during warmups when the Eagles played Carolina.

They've kept in touch over the years, even when Smith went through highly publicized physical attacks of teammates in 2002 and 2008.

When Smith was released, Harbaugh was first in line.

"He's going to be great with our young receivers," Harbaugh said. "He's going to show them a little bit of the way in practice and how to compete on Sunday. And plus, he's a hard worker.

"I just always liked him and really liked being around him and what he stands for as a competitor."

Harbaugh's not alone.

"Steve will tell you he made some mistakes," McCoy said. "We've all made mistakes in life. Steve's owned up for everything he's done. I've got a lot of respect for Steve Smith."

Many in the league do. If they're right, the Panthers may one day have to own up for the mistake they made in releasing Smith.