Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC South [Print without images]

Friday, February 21, 2014
Panthers vague on Steve Smith's future

By David Newton

Wide receiver Steve Smith spent the week before the Carolina Panthers played the San Francisco 49ers in a January NFC playoff game making up random percentages on whether his knee injury would allow him to play.

It did.

Smith
Now there's a mystery as to whether the team's all-time leading receiver will play again.

On consecutive days at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera were vague on whether Smith would be back for his 14th season.

It apparently has nothing to do with the injury, which was minor. It apparently has everything to do with either money or whether Smith wants to play another two or three seasons to finish in the top 10 in the league in all-time receptions and receiving yards.

"Steve's had a great career. None of us are here forever," Gettleman told reporters in Indianapolis on Thursday. "He's part of the evaluation."

Asked about Smith's future on Friday, Rivera said, "I'm not quite sure."

"We're going through the process," he added. "We've got to see. He's a veteran guy that has played a lot of games for us. We'll see. I'm at the point where we're sitting here talking about something we don't know anything about."

Asked if he foresaw a scenario in which Smith wouldn't return, Rivera was equally vague, saying the organization would sit down next week after the combine and evaluate where it is headed.

Smith was emphatic during Carolina's playoff run that his goal was to play until he had 1,000 receptions and "close to" 14,000 receiving yards, which would put him in the top 10 all-time in both categories.

Smith had 64 catches for 745 yards this past season to run his career totals to 836 and 12,197.

A third-round pick out of Utah in 2001, Smith will turn 35 in May. He has three years left on his contract, carrying a cap number of $7 million for 2014.

The team has between June 1 and June 30 to exercise a 2016 option that carries a $1.5 million bonus. Also to be considered, Carolina will have to execute a $3 million non-exercise fee if Smith is on the roster on July 1 and does not pick up the option year.

Regardless of what happens with Smith, Rivera acknowledged the Panthers will be looking for a "dynamic" receiver in either the draft or free agency.

The draft is at least two rounds deep of quality receivers, which means Carolina could get a potential replacement or future replacement for Smith with the 28th pick or in the second round.

The Panthers also potentially could target free agents such as Hakeem Nicks or Nate Burleson should Smith retire. If that happened, they may also draft a quality second receiver.

Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers from 2013, all are free agents. Of the three, Ginn is the most valuable because he is a deep threat and one of the league's top kick returners.

LaFell has yet to step up as a consistent No. 2 receiver.

Asked what he would be looking for receiver-wise in the draft, Rivera said, "We're going to look for a guy that is very dynamic that can come in and contribute right away."

The Panthers will need that regardless of whether Smith returns or not. If it makes sense financially for Smith to return, his experience in teaching a young receiver would be invaluable.

As for now, it appears that's all up in the air.

"Steve's part of who we are," Rivera said. "We'll go from there."