NFC South: Steve Smith

Steve SmithAlbert Dickson/Sporting News/Icon SMI 
Score: Panthers 29, Rams 23, 2 OT
Date: Jan. 10, 2004. Site: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

It's hard to argue with the voters on this one. Steve Smith's 69-yard touchdown catch from Jake Delhomme on the first play of the second overtime ended one of the most exciting playoff games not only in Carolina history but in NFL history.

The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit to force overtime, and both teams blew opportunities to win in the first extra period. I actually went to the sideline with an early story filed, awaiting the final score with Carolina leading 23-12. I've never felt so helpless. With no cell phone coverage and not being allowed to return to the press box, I had no way to rewrite the drama as it unfolded. And there was plenty.

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One could argue the most memorable play came from cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. a few plays before Smith's catch. The Rams had a first down at the Carolina 38 and appeared poised to win before Manning ripped an apparent catch from the hands of wide receiver Torry Holt for an interception. Were it not for that play, Smith's catch never would have happened. But because Smith's play won the game and sent Carolina to the NFC Championship Game and ultimately the Super Bowl, it is the one etched in the minds of most fans.

The scene at the Edward Jones Dome went from complete pandemonium to stunned silence as Smith caught the pass in stride over the middle between two defenders and raced untouched into the end zone. In a matter of seconds, St. Louis' 14-game home winning streak was over.

"I've never seen a game quite like that," then-Carolina coach John Fox said afterward.

There haven't been many like it since. As much as I'd say linebacker Sam Mills intercepting a shovel pass and returning it for a touchdown to secure Carolina's first franchise victory in 1995 was more memorable, that play or any other really isn't close when you consider what Smith's catch meant and the emotion it brought.
Steve Smith told Sports Illustrated's Don Banks that he decided in January, after the Carolina Panthers lost to San Francisco in the playoffs and well before his controversial release in mid-March, that the 2014 season would be his last.

He said the plan was to retire with the only team he had played for since being selected in the third round of the 2001 draft.

He said the release, and then signing a three-year, $11-million deal with the Baltimore Ravens, changed his mind about retirement and recommitted him to the game and having fun.

He said only a few people, close friends and his wife, knew his plans before the release.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
AP Photo/Matt RourkeHad Steve Smith remained a Panther, his presence this season might have slowed the development of Carolina's young receivers.
"I finally decided and made the commitment to my family," Smith told SI after a Ravens practice Wednesday. "I told them, 'I'm done. I don't think I can do it much longer.' My knee was sore and I knew all the work I had put into my career and what it would take. I came to terms with it, that this year was going to be my last year ever playing football."

Reading this made me feel even stronger that the Panthers made the right decision in releasing their all-time leading receiver.

I still disagree with the way it was handled, but it was time to move on. That Smith, 35, basically admitted he was "done" only strengthens the argument that general manager Dave Gettleman was right in making the tough decision.

To have kept Smith for a farewell tour would not have helped the Carolina offense progress. It would not have allowed young receivers such as Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt, Brenton Bersin and Kealoha Pilares to get the time on the field that they need to prove themselves.

It might have slowed the progress of first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

Will the Panthers miss Smith's tenacity and work ethic? Definitely. But will they be better without him?

Probably.

Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant bring 18 years of experience and leadership. They are also solid and dependable receivers, perhaps more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were. Maybe neither is a bona fide No. 1 receiver, but neither was Smith anymore.

Tiquan Underwood has shown flashes in offseason workouts of having speed like Smith once used to his advantage, plus playmaking ability.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Chris KeaneThe Panthers hope first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin develops into a No. 1 receiver.
Benjamin, at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, has shown the potential to be as dynamic in the red zone and on third down as he was at Florida State last season.

He could be a bona fide No. 1.

With Smith taking most of the first-team snaps, it would have eaten into the time it will take quarterback Cam Newton, when he returns from offseason ankle surgery, to develop the chemistry he will need with Benjamin to create a big-time combination.

That Smith feels he has something to prove because of his release is all good and everything, but he really doesn't have anything to prove because he's had a Hall of Fame-type career.

And he had nothing to prove in Carolina, so the Panthers might not have gotten the level of intensity from him that Baltimore will.

Smith still can retire as a Panther. He has gone out of his way not to say anything bad about the organization because he doesn't want to upset management -- team owner Jerry Richardson, specifically -- to the point retiring here might be uncomfortable.

Or not accepted.

By taking the high road, there is a good chance Smith will one day have his No. 89 jersey retired here. It should be.

Charlotte is Smith's home. He has made it clear it will remain his home even while playing out the rest of his career in Baltimore.

"After this contract with the Baltimore Ravens, I am done," Smith told SI. "I'm going to be stay-at-home dad, and I'm going to get on with the rest of my life's work. I know sometimes there are people saying, 'Oh, he needs to just let it go.' Believe me, I will. I'm going to let it go.

"But I'm going to take a few people down with me. Not in spite, but just fun. I'm going to enjoy playing ball again. I'm going to have fun here."

That is a good thing, because there were times Smith didn't appear to be having fun last season with Carolina. He deserves to have fun at this point in his career.

But it was time for the Panthers to move on.

Even if it postponed Smith's retirement.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first thing you need to understand about Jerricho Cotchery is he didn't sign with the Carolina Panthers to replace Steve Smith. Had that been his goal he might have taken the No. 89 he'd worn for nine of his 10 seasons.

Cotchery also didn't sign just to be a leader and mentor for Carolina's young receivers, although those are words used most often to describe him. This isn't a retirement tour where he can sit back and enjoy what he's accomplished.

The same goes for Jason Avant.

"We'll do whatever we can to help this group get better, but at the same time we were brought here to make plays," Cotchery said. "So that's on our minds and that's what we're going to try to do each and every day to help this team win a championship, because that's what it's all about."

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Jerricho Cotchery
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneJerricho Cotchery, who joined the Panthers in free agency, caught 10 TDs for the Steelers last season.
Cotchery turns 32 this month and Avant is 31. They understand a big reason they were brought in was to replace the experience of Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and help bring along a new group of receivers that includes first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State.

But as Cotchery noted, they also were brought in to make plays. The best way to lead is by example and performance, and that's what they've done during the first week of organized workouts.

From the outside looking in, it may appear the Panthers have taken a step back after releasing Smith and losing their next three receivers to free agency.

But in Cotchery and Avant they added a pair of receivers that caught a combined 84 passes for 12 touchdowns last season. The numbers aren't overwhelming, but in terms of touchdowns they had only two less than what Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. combined for in 2013.

Toss in Benjamin, free-agent signee Tiquan Underwood and returning young players Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin, and this potentially is a more talented group.

"If you're constantly looking around you can't see what's right before you," said Cotchery, who chose to wear No. 82. "What we have right before us is work to do. You can't be worried about what's being said on the outside.

"You have to put forth the work each and every day to help this team win a championship. If we focus on that, we'll be able to do what's necessary to help the team accomplish that."

Notice a theme? Work.

When asked how he would describe the mood in the wide receivers room, Cotchery didn't hesitate.

"Workmanlike," said Cotchery, who caught 10 touchdowns at Pittsburgh last season. "Guys really decided to work with each other and we know what we have to do as a group to help this team win ballgames."

That should come as no surprise. The Panthers have a position coach in Ricky Proehl who made a 17-year career out of working hard to perfect the little things it takes to win.

"He brings so much," Cotchery said of Proehl. "He's played in so many different offenses, he's played so many different [receiver] positions, like how can you not listen?"

Had the Panthers simply wanted experience to replace Smith, they could have relied on Proehl. But they needed players with experience that could make plays, which is why Cotchery and Avant were at or near the top of their free-agent shopping list.

"We have a coach that has played in this league a long time, and to have that type of wisdom at your disposal it's going to help not only young guys but older guys like myself," Cotchery said. "It's a great situation."

How good? Cotchery isn't ready to make any predictions, another sign of veteran savvy and attitude that the Panthers want to build around.

"You just want to continue to work and continue to develop," he said. "We'll see where it's at when the jets fly over the stadium. That's our approach."

Panthers offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
10:00
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

 With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Carolina Panthers' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Chris KeaneKelvin Benjamin made a good first impression on his new teammates at rookie minicamp.
Best move: Selecting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick of the draft. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin is considered by many to be a first-round risk because he doesn't have a long history of performing at a high level. But after watching him in rookie camp, the way he effortlessly caught passes in traffic even when the passes weren't well-thrown, he has a chance to make people quickly forget the release of Steve Smith and become a long-term solution as a No. 1 receiver.

Riskiest move: Many will argue releasing Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, should be here. Although I didn't like the way it was handled, it wasn't such a big risk when you consider Smith was no longer a No. 1-caliber receiver. The biggest risk was not signing a veteran left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross and leaving the job to right tackle Byron Bell or Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman. Maybe one will surprise, but leaving franchise quarterback Cam Newton without a proven player protecting his blind side seems like a mistake for a team that depends so heavily on Newton.

Most surprising move: That the team didn't find a way to keep any of its top four wide receivers from last season. While I believe the Panthers will be better off with the new group that consists of Benjamin; free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood; and several young players such as Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin few would have predicted a complete overhaul of that group after they starting developing chemistry with Newton.

Reason for the minus: Many would say the Panthers had a disastrous offseason, losing their top four receivers, three-fourths of their starting secondary and their left tackle. Oh, and quarterback Cam Newton is out for four months after undergoing ankle surgery. But the retirement of the left tackle aside, the loses weren't huge. So, why the B-minus? That would be for the distraction created after the arrest of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy. You never want to have a star player in trouble, particularly when you've just guaranteed him $13.1 million with the franchise tag. At a time when the Panthers are trying to focus on retooling, Hardy's arrest on domestic violence charges is dominating the headlines.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers rookie Robert Herron said he’s patterning himself after veteran NFL receiver Steve Smith. He’s off to a good start.

Like Smith, Herron is an undersized receiver with the potential to contribute to the return game. But the similarities don’t end there, and Smith and Herron might have something more in common.

Anyone who has followed Smith’s career with the Carolina Panthers and now with the Baltimore Ravens knows the receiver plays with a chip on his shoulder.

“I definitely have a chip on my shoulder because I feel like I should have went before,’’ Herron said.

Herron, a Wyoming product, was referring to the fact that he wasn’t drafted until the sixth round.

“I’m definitely motivated,’’ Herron said. “I thought I was going to go before that. But you never know how the draft is going to go. I wasn’t expecting that but I knew it could happen. I’m definitely going to try to go hard on every team that either I took a visit with or a workout with.’’

If Herron uses that fuel to be even half as productive as Smith, the Bucs will be very happy.

The Bucs see Herron as someone that has a chance to be their slot receiver. They have plenty of size with starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, but they can use someone with speed to stretch the field. Herron said he spent much of his college career in the slot and is comfortable in the position.

But the Bucs also are looking at Herron in another spot. During this weekend’s rookie camp, Herron has gotten some work as a punt returner.

“He didn’t do a lot in college, but he has been working on it,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. “He caught the ball better today than he did yesterday. I was a little concerned to say the least yesterday. But today was better. It was windy. But, as I told them, there’s going to be a couple of windy games that we’ll be playing this year.’’

Herron said he hasn’t returned punts since high school. But Herron said he’s spent the last few months working on punt returns because it would make him more marketable in the NFL.
The Carolina Panthers lost their starting left tackle to retirement, their top four wide receivers as a result of being cut or signed by other teams in free agency, three-fourths of their secondary in free agency and their franchise quarterback for four months to recover from ankle surgery.

So it is no surprise that the reigning NFC South champions lost a lot of spots in ESPN.com's post-draft Power Rankings.

They lost more spots than any other team in the league. Eight to be exact, all the way to No. 11.

I'm actually surprised it wasn't more judging by the national reaction of the decision to cut Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and quarterback Cam Newton's surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.

But I actually believe the receiving corps will be better with first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin and free agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood.

I also believe Newton will be better now that he has repaired an injury that has hampered him since college.

Questions on the offensive line aside, the Panthers are in better shape now than they were at the beginning of last season when they had a power ranking of 21.

Improving on last season's 12-4 record will be difficult, though, primarily because the rest of the NFC South should be better. New Orleans ranks No. 5 in the power rankings. Atlanta made the biggest jump, improving 12 spots to No. 14.

Tampa Bay, which had arguably the best free agency of the division teams, moved up four spots to 23rd.

And in case you're wondering, Seattle and Denver remained Nos. 1-2 just as they were at the Super Bowl.

As Carolina showed last season, there will be surprises. Will the Panthers surprise and record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history? Or will they continue to suffer losses?

Stay tuned.
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A wrap-up of the Carolina Panthers' draft. Click here for a full list of Panthers draftees.

[+] EnlargeKony Ealy
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Kony Ealy was a steal in the second round for the Panthers.
Best move: Adding another pass-rush threat to a team that led the league in sacks (60) with Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy at No. 60. He was rated a first-round pick by many teams, including the Panthers, which is why he was invited to New York City for the draft. He has freaky athletic ability at 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds. If he can play inside and out the way he and the Panthers say, he'll be a steal for a second-rounder. And as I wrote on Friday, if Ealy performs, he gives general manager Dave Gettleman the flexibility to move on after this season without the big contract of at least one of his star ends -- Charles Johnson ($16.4 million) or Greg Hardy ($13.1 million) -- as he attempts to get the payroll under control and sign quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly to long-term deals. Many might argue taking Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round was the best move, but the pick of Ealy has the potential for a more long-term and big-picture impact.

Riskiest move: Not taking an offensive tackle in the first two rounds. With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, that leaves the starting job between right tackle Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. Bell was considered adequate at best on the right side. Chandler is a former defensive lineman who was being groomed to make the switch to tackle before injuries at guard last season forced him in the starting lineup on the right side. It seems like a big gamble to leave Newton's blind side that unsettled, but the Panthers believed after the first four tackles went in the draft, the value on their roster was better than using a pick on one.

Most surprising move: I could say that Gettleman went to his son's graduation in Massachusetts on Saturday and worked with the team via Skype, but I'm on the record as saying that was the right move. According to Gettleman, it worked great. He even had a GM from another team text that it was the right move. The biggest surprise for me was the selection of Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney in the sixth round. Carolina already has three highly paid backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. They selected Kenjon Barner in the sixth around a year ago and barely got him on the field because the backfield was so crowded. Gaffney just crowds it more.

File it away: I said when Gettleman released wide receiver Steve Smith and let his next top three receivers sign with other teams in free agency that the Panthers really didn't lose that much. They represented less than 10 catches per game in reality. An experienced No. 1 receiver aside, the team might be in better shape going into this season with Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King than they were a season ago. Smith wasn't a true No. 1 anymore, and I was never sold on Brandon LaFell as a No. 2. Benjamin will draw extra coverage simply because of his size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and ability to go up for passes. He has a chance to be a legitimate No. 1 even though rookie receivers tend to struggle. Cotchery and Avant are solid possession receivers and good leaders who will help Benjamin's transition. One of the others has the ability to stretch the field with speed. Moves that looked questionable a few months ago are starting to look smart now.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton said he wanted the Carolina Panthers to take a wide receiver with the 28th pick of the NFL draft, and Dave Gettleman obliged.

It was the least the general manager could do for his quarterback after cutting Newton's top target the past three years in Steve Smith and letting the team's next three wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

Newton, who began his journey into tweeting for the first time moments before Thursday's draft began, seemed pleased. He began his Friday morning with this message:

 

For the record, that was Newton's fourth-ever tweet.

Ironically, by picking Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin the Panthers got the player who caught the game-winning touchdown in the national championship against Newton's beloved Auburn Tigers.

Fortunately for Newton, who led Auburn to the national title in the 2010 season, Benjamin is a humble guy who probably won't give his new quarterback a hard time about that.

Benjamin also is a huge Newton fan. That's the quarterback he picks when playing "Madden NFL."

"He loves to win,'' Benjamin said. "And competing, you can tell he competes. That’s all you can ask from a football player, to compete at the highest level, and I think Cam does that and I’ll love to play with him.''

Benjamin (6-foot-5, 240) gives Newton a big target for some of those high throws he tends to make. He also gives Newton a clutch player, as he probably didn't want to see in the national championship game.

As Gettleman said, you can't coach 6-5, 240.

You also can't coach speed, and Benjamin is lacking a bit in that department. But otherwise, he fits all the requirements of a No. 1 receiver that the Panthers haven't had since Smith approached his mid-30s.

Outside of Clemson's Sammy Watkins (No. 4, Buffalo), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (No. 7, Tampa Bay), LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. (No. 12, New York Giants) and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks (No. 20, New Orleans), the Panthers didn't have another receiver rated ahead of Benjamin.

If they had, they could have taken him. Southern California's Marqise Lee was available -- and still is -- as was Indiana's Cody Latimer.

According to Gettleman, NFC South rival New Orleans got the only receiver that could run every pattern on the route trees that NFL scouts use when evaluating receivers.

How did Benjamin fare in that department?

"More than most,'' Gettleman said. "More than most.''

Benjamin also has more size than most wide receivers, which should strike fear in NFL cornerbacks that for the most part will be four to six inches shorter. He's a few pounds from being able to play tight end.

"This guy has unusual ball skills,'' Gettleman said. "He has what we call a very big strike zone. One of the things that I have done with the scouts is, ‘Does he make catches when he is pressured?’

"You are going to be pressured in this league, I don’t care who you are. That was a big point of emphasis as we worked our way down through the list. Kelvin consistently made catches when he was pressured.''

Newton probably didn't like the 2-yard touchdown pass Benjamin made to beat Auburn in the closing seconds and land himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but he has to like having a new weapon.

Now the Panthers need to find Newton help on the offensive line so he has time to find Benjamin. There are plenty of good options remaining at left tackle, another primary need, in the second round with Nevada's Joel Bitonio and Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio available.

Or who knows, Gettleman might give Newton another receiver to play with. Lee, Latimer, LSU's Jarvis Landry, South Carolina's Bruce Ellington and Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews all are available.

And we all know drafting the same position in consecutive rounds won't stop Gettleman. He did that last year when he took defensive tackles with his first two picks.

"We’re going to see how it falls,'' Gettleman said. "We don’t draft for need, we draft for value. If you draft for need you are going to get burned.''

In this case, the Panthers got need and value.

And made their quarterback happy.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith who?

Getting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick of Thursday's NFL draft begins the healing process for a Carolina Panthers' fan base mourning the release of its all-time leading receiver.

It also is the beginning of redemption for general manager Dave Gettleman, chastised when he let Smith go in March and subsequently allowed the team's next three wide receivers to sign with other organizations as free agents.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin's size and final season at Florida State, capped with his title-winning touchdown catch against Auburn, were too much for the Panthers to resist.
"I'm sure Cam is not mad at me now," Gettleman said joking in reference to quarterback Cam Newton.

No, Newton wasn't upset with Gettleman for letting his entire wide receiving corps go. At least he didn't tell Gettleman that. But Newton has to be happy to have a big target like Benjamin.

"You can't coach 6-5, 240," Gettleman said repeatedly during his post-first-round news conference. "He has a lot of upside."

Benjamin has so much upside that he could become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for a team that doesn't have one, and according to head coach Ron Rivera doesn't really need one.

Gettleman knew this was a good year for wide receivers when he let Smith & Co. go. He didn't know how many of those receivers would grade out to be first-rounders, but he had no doubts about Benjamin after having him in for a workout.

Gettleman also had a gut feeling that Benjamin would be there at No. 28 even though many mock drafts didn't.

When he was, it didn't take Gettleman long to make the pick -- just as it didn't take him long a year ago to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei at No. 14.

"He was the highest-rated guy on our board," Gettleman said of Benjamin. "And again, like last year, value. We got fortunate."

Many of the so-called draft experts had Benjamin as a potential second-round pick, perhaps a project because he had only one productive season at FSU.

But that production (54 catches for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns) was enough to sell the Panthers. Gettleman in particularly was impressed with what Benjamin did in the final four games, catching 21 passes for an average of 21.3 yards per catch with eight touchdowns.

One of those touchdowns was the BCS title-winner over Auburn, the team Newton led to the national championship at the end of the 2010 season, which is sure to come up in conversation.

But it wasn't so much that Benjamin caught the game-winner. It's that he caught it when everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be the target.

The Panthers needed to replace a clutch player in Smith. In Benjamin, they got clutch.

"He said he didn't want to let that quarterback down," Rivera said. "I love that confidence."

Unlike the flamboyant Smith's, it is a quiet confidence. Benjamin isn't an in-your-face player. He is humble, so much so that he opted to stay in Florida with his parents for the draft instead of going to Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

That was something else that made him attractive to Carolina, which is trying to build an organization around teamwork and not egos. Smith, in case you never noticed, had a big ego.

"He's a different young man," Rivera said of Benjamin. "He's been very humble with us through this process. All the coaches said that."

Benjamin also is a big Newton fan.

"That's my favorite man," he said by phone. "I always dreamed of coming there and playing with Cam, coming and contributing to the organization."

Benjamin will give the Panthers more than a threat at receiver. He'll provide a big blocker who can open room for Newton and the Carolina backs down field.

He likes to block. He wants to block.

His presence also won't allow teams to stack eight in the box to stop the run, which will enable the Panthers to do more with its bread-and-butter game.

This was a win for a Carolina team that has done nothing but lose in the wide receiver department since it lost to San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs.

This was the true beginning of the post-Smith era.
Predicting an NFL team's record in April is like predicting the first round of a mock draft.

There are going to be adjustments and changes.

So when I predict the Carolina Panthers will be 8-8 today, that doesn't mean that will be the prediction in May after the draft or in August after training camp.

It just means that's what I believe is a realistic expectation with a new wide receiver corps, uncertainty at left tackle and along the offensive line, and an unproven secondary.

That could change if the Panthers get a difference-maker in the first or second round of the draft. Or if free agent wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant begin playing like Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. Or if several of their opponents suffer key injuries as Green Bay did last season with the loss of Aaron Rodgers.

Or if the Panthers suffer a key injury.

By August this may look like an 11-5 team. It also may look like a 7-9 team.

But for now, less than 24 hours after the NFL schedule release, I'm going with 8-8.

Here is a game-by-game look at how I got to that:
  • Sept. 7 at Tampa Bay -- New coach Lovie Smith will make the Bucs better. But he still has to open the season with Josh McCown or Mike Glennon at quarterback against one of the top front sevens in the NFL. Carolina 17, Tampa Bay 10 (W, 1-0)
  • Sept. 14 Detroit -- A new coach and a dismal road team. Carolina 24, Detroit 17 (W, 2-0)
  • Sept. 21 Pittsburgh -- Carolina owner Jerry Richardson modeled his franchise after Pittsburgh's. Right now the model is ahead of the real thing, but barely. Carolina 14, Pittsburgh 13 (W, 3-0)
  • Sept. 28 at Baltimore -- Blood and guts. Steve Smithgets his revenge against the team with which he hopes to retire and tells whatever cornerback covers him to "Ice Up Son." Baltimore 20, Carolina 13 (L, 3-1)
  • Oct. 5 Chicago -- Good thing for Cam Newton his left ankle will be fully healed by this one with new Bears defensive end Jared Allen and his 128.5 career sacks staring at him. Carolina 20, Chicago 17 (W, 4-1)
  • Oct. 12 at Cincinnati -- The beginning of the toughest 18-game stretch of this or any Carolina season. Cincinnati 27, Carolina 20 (L, 4-2)
  • Oct. 19 at Green Bay -- Unless Aaron Rodgers has another shoulder injury, winning at Lambeau Field might be too much to ask. Green Bay 28, Carolina 21 (L, 4-3)
  • Oct. 26 Seattle -- Carolina has come close to beating the defending world champions at home the past two seasons.Carolina 14, Seattle 13 (W, 5-3)
  • Oct. 30 New Orleans -- I don't anticipate another third-quarter monsoon to slow down the Saints at Bank of America Stadium this time. New Orleans 24, Carolina 17 (L, 5-4)
  • Nov. 10 at Philadelphia -- Funny, a big deal was made about how dreadful Carolina would be after losing its top four receivers. The Eagles lost two better ones in DeSean Jacksonand Jason Avant (Panthers) and the panic button wasn't pushed. Philadelphia 20, Carolina 14 (L, 5-5)
  • Nov. 16 Atlanta -- I'm still not convinced Atlanta has upgraded enough on defense to win consistently on the road.Carolina 24, Atlanta 20 (W, 6-5)
  • Nov. 23 Bye -- A much-needed breather after that stretch.
  • Nov. 30 at Minnesota -- This one will be played outdoors at the University of Minnesota home field while the Vikings' new stadium is being built. The average temperature for that day, according to Google, is 33 degrees. Brrr. Minnesota 20, Carolina 17 (L, 6-6)
  • Dec. 7 at New Orleans -- The Saints have averaged 38 points a game at home against Carolina in their last three meetings. New Orleans 31, Carolina 21 (L, 6-7)
  • Dec. 14 Tampa Bay -- The Bucs still have Josh McCown or Mike Glennon at quarterback. Carolina 30, Tampa Bay 14 (W, 7-7)
  • Dec. 21 Cleveland -- It's Cleveland in December when the Browns are planning for what pick they will have in the 2015 draft.Carolina 38, Cleveland 12 (W, 8-7)
  • Dec. 28 at Atlanta -- The Falcons had five straight winning records before last season. Carolina has never had two straight. Atlanta 24, Carolina 20 (L, 8-8)

Analyzing McShay mock: Panthers 

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
12:15
PM ET
The Carolina Panthers have the 28th pick of the May 8-10 NFL draft after finishing last season with a 12-4 record. General manager Dave Gettleman remains adamant he will take the best player available even though offensive tackle and wide receiver are huge needs.

The latest first-round picks by ESPN analyst Todd McShay are out on Insider Insider. You probably won't be surprised by his pick for Carolina, but you will be surprised by mine.

NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: The NFL rewarded the Panthers for their 12-4 season with three prime-time games, Sept. 21 vs. Pittsburgh (NBC, Sunday), Oct. 30 vs. New Orleans (NFLN, Thursday) and Nov. 10 at Philadelphia (ESPN, Monday). The irony is Carolina had the league's toughest schedule last season after going 7-9 in 2012 and this year's schedule ranks only 22nd. It sets up well for a fast start, something Carolina hasn't had in three seasons under coach Ron Rivera. None of the first five opponents -- at Tampa Bay, vs. Detroit, vs. Pittsburgh, at Baltimore and vs. Chicago -- had better than an 8-8 record last season. And three are at home. That bodes well for an offense that needs time to gel after losing its top four wide receivers and starting left tackle Jordan Gross.

Then it gets tough with three consecutive games against 2013 division winners: at Cincinnati, at Green Bay and vs. Seattle. It's hard to imagine an eight-game winning streak in the middle of the schedule, like Carolina had last season, against that stretch. The end of the schedule gives Carolina a chance for a late-season run if needed with home games against Tampa Bay and Cleveland, followed by the Falcons in Atlanta. While some games will be bigger nationally, the most anticipated locally will be the Sept. 28 trip to Baltimore to face former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released in February under a cloud of controversy.

Complaint department: I don't understand why the NFL didn't schedule Carolina's Oct. 26 home game against Super Bowl champ Seattle in prime time. They were the top two seeds in the NFC a year ago. They played a tough defensive battle in last season's opener, won by the Seahawks 12-7. It just seemed like a natural choice. Speaking of the Seahawks, they fall in an 18-day stretch for Carolina that includes road games against Cincinnati and Green Bay and a home game against New Orleans. If the Panthers don't get off to a fast start this could be the stretch that breaks them.

Familiar friend or foe? This is the blood-and-guts category, that Sept. 28 trip to Baltimore. That's when the Panthers face Smith, their all-time leading receiver. It's also my birthday if anybody is keeping track. Nobody deserves blood and guts, as Smith promised his former team when released, on their birthday. This, as said previously, will be the most anticipated game on the schedule. Smith is out to prove the Panthers made a mistake in releasing him. The Panthers will be out to prove it was the right move. That the game will take place in the first month of the season puts a lot of pressure on a new group of Carolina receivers who will be under the microscope.

Strength of schedule: 22nd, .473 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Panthers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Seattle, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Thursday, Oct. 30, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 10, at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 12: BYE
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
CONCORD, N.C. -- Steve Smith didn't look particularly comfortable climbing behind the wheel of a top fuel dragster at zMax Speedway on Friday, but the Baltimore Ravens wide receiver is very comfortable with his new NFL team.

"The confidence I have in myself, I look good in any color," said Smith, the guest of NHRA star Antron Brown during the 4-Wide Nationals. "I look good in purple, so I'll be fine."

Smith was released by the Carolina Panthers, his home for his first 13 NFL seasons, in March. Twenty-four hours later, he signed with the Ravens.

The Panthers went on to lose Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon -- their next three wide receivers behind Smith in 2013 -- in free agency.

General manager Dave Gettleman has taken a lot of heat, first for releasing Carolina's all-time leading receiver and then for not keeping others from a corps that helped the Panthers to a 12-4 record.

He's brought in Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant, all second, third or fourth options from other teams. That hasn't justified the other moves to the masses.

Smith isn't concerned.

"What I think about what's going on is I concern myself with what's going on in Baltimore and I no longer concern myself with what's going on with the Carolina Panthers," Smith said. "But I concern myself with what's going on in Charlotte, N.C.

"I do my football camp here. But I no longer have the luxury to be a part of that [team], so I don't concern myself with it. Not that I'm upset. Not that I'm mad. It's just the fact of the business."

Smith has taken the high road since his release. He plans to keep his home in Charlotte and enjoy days like this one that he shared with his son, Boston. He hopes to one day retire as a Carolina player.

But for now his football focus is all on Baltimore. Smith, 34, wouldn't even comment on Carolina coach Ron Rivera recently saying he needed to "tone things down" in his practice and workout routine or risk wearing himself down.

"I'm focusing on April 21st," Smith said. "April 21st I'll be in Baltimore doing our workouts. What's in the past is in the past. At the end of the day, you go to the kitchen, you get a washcloth, you pick up the spilled milk and move on.

"That's what I'm doing, moving on."

Smith still keeps in close contact with some of his former teammates. He, LaFell, Ginn and Hixon get together and occasionally have "group texts."

"Who your current employer is does not change the friendship or camaraderie we've built," Smith said. "Just because we collect checks from different organizations doesn't mean we cut each other off."

While Smith wouldn't talk about what Carolina has done to replace its wide receivers, he was interested in Brown's response when I asked if he could play wide receiver for the Panthers.

"They don't need my skill set," Brown said with Smith leering on with a big smile.

Brown let Smith warm his 10,000 horsepower engine up between qualifying runs, albeit the car was off the ground so the wheels couldn't move.

Smith had no desire to make a run down the track.

"Antron will also bill me and he will know I will be able to pay for it and so I think I might buy him a new car, and I'm not trying to go down that road," Smith said. "As athletes, sometimes we can come across and say I can do it. I can't do it. You can try, but you can't.

"You can't do what these men and women have been doing and perfecting since they were young kids. So you can't just wake up out of bed and think you're going to be a driver ... . And I also believe drivers are athletes."

Smith could pay for one of Brown's car because the Ravens gave him a three-year deal worth $11 million. He also received $5 million from the Panthers this season in guaranteed money and deferred bonuses.

But Smith wasn't interested in driving on this day. He was just interested in being a dad and seeing how another athlete does his job.

"This is who I am," he said. "I've got the opportunity to experience another athlete's world, and it happens to be home. This is my home ... . This is in my backyard. This is my community. This is my town.

"But it's no longer my team."

Maybe this will help you better understand why Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was willing to part with his top wide receivers from 2013.

Smith
Avant
There is almost a $3 million difference between the 2014 salary-cap total for the three receivers the Panthers signed compared to the cap total other teams are counting for the three Carolina lost.

For a team looking to get out of salary-cap jail, that is a plus.

We'll start with the most recent signee, former Philadelphia receiver Jason Avant. The one-year deal the Panthers gave him on Monday doesn't qualify as a minimum-salary benefit contract because of a $150,000 signing bonus.

Avant also is eligible for a $45,000 workout bonus, which would bring the total of his deal and 2014 cap number to $1,050,000.

That brings the 2014 cap total of the three receivers the Panthers signed -- Jerricho Cotchery ($1.7 million), Tiquan Underwood ($925,000) and Avant -- to $3,675,000.

That is $2,741,666 less than the combined cap value of Steve Smith ($2,166,666, Baltimore) , Brandon LaFell ($2 milion, New England) and Ted Ginn Jr. ($2.25 million, Arizona), Carolina's top three receivers in 2013.

Smith alone was going to count $7 million against the cap this season before the Panthers released him. Carolina still had to pay Smith $5 million in salary and deferred bonuses, but long-term the moves have been a big savings.

Now it comes down to whether the new receivers can replace those lost in production.

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