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Carolina's greatest draft picks: No. 1 Smith

Next on my ranking of the top five draft picks in the history of the Carolina Panthers is a player whose career was filled with great plays and controversy to the very end.

Meet No. 1:

Steve Smith, wide receiver, 3rd round, No. 74 overall, 2001 out of Utah -- The release of Smith two months ago easily has been the biggest and most controversial story of Carolina's offseason. That's fitting for a player who often evoked big stories and controversy during his career that is continuing in Baltimore.

But when you look at where he was selected and what he accomplished, there's no doubt Smith is the top draft pick in team history.

Smith left as the team's all-time leader in receptions (836), receiving yards (12,197) and touchdowns (67). He also left as a five-time Pro Bowl selection.

He was one of most fiery players in team history, suspended twice for attacking a teammate. That fiery attitude carried over onto the field, where Smith played much bigger than his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. At times it was inspirational. During a Monday night game against New England this past season, after out-battling cornerback Aqib Talib in a much-publicized matchup, Smith told the Pro Bowler to, "Ice up, son.'' A few days later, T-shirts were made.

When the Panthers lost to Seattle in last season's opener, Smith inspired many of his teammates by saying the teams would meet again deep in the playoffs. It almost happened as Carolina went 12-4 before losing to San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs. Seattle went on to win the Super Bowl.

Smith was at his best in 2005 when he led the NFL in receiving yards (1,563), receptions (103) and receiving touchdowns (12). He also returned 27 punts for 286 yards, a 10.6 average that was the second-highest of his career.

As Smith will tell you, he almost never got a chance at receiver because then-coach George Seifert thought his value was only as a kick returner. He had only 10 catches for 154 yards as a rookie.

When Seifert was replaced by John Fox in 2002, Smith became a star. He had 54 catches for 872 yards that season, followed by 88 catches for 1,110 yards during Carolina's 2003 Super Bowl run. His 69-yard touchdown catch against St. Louis gave the Panthers a 29-23 double-overtime victory. It remains one of the biggest plays in team history.

Many can't accept that Smith is now at Baltimore, where he has promised "blood and guts'' when the Ravens play Carolina on Sept. 28. But there's no denying he is the best draft pick in team history.