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Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Smith survives Day 1, but future still cloudy

By David Newton

Steve Smith spent the early part of what many thought might be his last day as a member of the Carolina Panthers having fun in a Twitter exchange with Brian Blackmore, a fan who made up a "Save Steve Smith" T-shirt.



Blackmore, 31, then shared that he once was released from his job, adding, "I'm pulling for you."

Responded Smith: "I love the shirt but it just made me laugh and smile. Everything that is going on I'm just humbled by the support."

Maybe the T-shirt worked.

At least for the first day of the NFL's new year, Smith is safe.

That doesn't mean the Panthers won't release him on Wednesday or the next day or the next. They've almost backed themselves into a corner since it was reported on Monday they were trying to trade their all-time leading receiver.

And maybe they still are. Since Smith is under contract, the Panthers didn't have to release him at 4 p.m. ET as most teams looking to dump a player did. They can talk trade for another couple of months in hopes of convincing a team to take on Smith's $7 million cap figure.

It's doubtful that will happen. Teams aren't likely to gamble that kind of money on a soon-to-be 35-year old, even one that has been as productive as Smith.

And it's not like this isn't the first time the Panthers have shopped Smith only to keep him. It happened a few years ago when Smith was disgruntled with the direction the team was headed.

To cut Smith without compensation makes little sense financially because the Panthers would have to pay him $3 million of the $7 million he is scheduled to count against the salary cap this season.

That's $3 million to play for somebody else.

It's also risky to cut Smith without assurance you're going to sign a proven veteran such as Sidney Rice or Hakeem Nicks to team with up-and-comers and a draft pick. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, Carolina's next three wide receivers from 2013, are now on the open market as free agents.

Of those, Ginn is the one Carolina would like to keep because he can return kicks.

Otherwise, the cupboard is bare.

It's also risky to keep Smith now that he knows the team was willing to move on without him. He's a proud and passionate player who surely will take this to heart.

I still think general manager Dave Gettleman ultimately will release Smith despite the support of Blackmore and a recent Charlotte Observer poll in which 84 percent of those that responded said the Panthers should keep him.

So now we play the waiting game.

For those following the Panthers in free agency, Tuesday was a lot like the recent Super Bowl between New England and Seattle. There was a lot of buildup and drama, but in the end not much to get excited about.

The biggest news of the day was offensive linemen Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers made official they are joining left tackle Jordan Gross in retirement. Hangartner has been saying this for months, so it really wasn't a surprise.

The second biggest news was special teamer Jordan Senn is headed to Chicago.

See what I mean.

Re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell remains one of Carolina's priorities, although with strong interest from Philadelphia and Washington the price may go beyond what Gettleman wants to pay with only $7 million in cap space.

After that the Panthers will scour the market for bargains at cornerback and offensive tackle. They let starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn test the market, but even he can't be ruled out returning.

Munnerlyn tested the market a year ago and came back to Carolina for a one-year deal.

Gettleman's strategy is to let the feeding frenzy that occurs at the opening of free agency settle down and then find the diamonds in the rough.

He'll also have to deal with Smith at some point.

But at least for a day, Smith is safe.