NFL Nation: Domenik Hixon

The Chicago Bears asked kick returner/receiver Eric Weems in March to take a pay cut from the $1.1 million he was scheduled to earn in 2014,'s Jeff Dickerson reported, and the veteran complied Thursday, according to documents obtained by

The Bears reduced Weems' $1.1 million base salary for 2014 to $730,000, and the deal still includes a $100,000 workout bonus and escalators worth up to $500,000 for receptions. The new deal reduces Weems' cap figure of $1.6 million for 2014 to $1.33 million.

Weems was expected to be released if he declined the salary reduction.

Weems joined the Bears on a three-year deal worth $4.25 million in 2012 that included a $1.5 million bonus.

But when the Bears proposed the salary reduction, it was believed the club wanted Weems' deal to be similar to the contract signed in March by receiver Domenik Hixon. Hixon signed a one-year deal worth $730,000 that included $100,000 in roster bonus provided the receiver is active on game days, and Weems' new base salary for 2014 is the same.

A seven-year veteran, Weems contributed 13 tackles on special teams last season and caught one pass for an 8-yard gain. Weems was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010 as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

Weems will compete against Terrance Toliver, Josh Bellamy, Hixon and Chris Williams for a dual role as receiver and special-teams contributor.

The club also asked Earl Bennett to take his second pay cut since 2013 but the receiver declined, leading to the Bears to release him on March 18.'s Jeff Dickerson contributed to this report.
Who do you have in the Final Four? Had to ask since I'm in Dallas, only a few miles from where the NCAA Tournament will come to a conclusion on Monday night.

I kind of like Kentucky at this point. They beat my pick, Louisville, and the rest of my tournament bracket has more X marks than one of my college calculus tests.

I know, I know. Some of you still want to talk Carolina Panthers. Some of you still want to talk free agency and the draft. I've got time for that, too.

Let's get straight to the Saturday mailbag:
Veteran wide receiver Donte' Stallworth made the following comment on Twitter after the Carolina Panthers cut Steve Smith and lost their next three wide receivers in free agency:

Many of you were asking the same question. So was I. Some wondered whether the quarterback's relationship with Smith had anything to do with Carolina's decision to cut their all-time leading receiver. So did I.

I haven't talked to Newton, but Carolina coach Ron Rivera filled in a few blanks this past week at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla.

First, Newton wasn't consulted on the decision to release Smith. He also wasn't consulted on whether the Panthers should try to re-sign Brandon LaFell (Patriots), Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) or Domenik Hixon (Bears).

Newton was in the Caribbean when everything transpired and had no idea any of the transactions had occurred until he returned to Charlotte to have an MRI on his left ankle, which led to surgery that will force him to miss the next four months.

His reaction?

"Surprised," Rivera said.

What quarterback wouldn't be after losing his top four targets? It's also no surprise that the Panthers didn't consult Newton. Players seldom are.

"Cam had nothing to do with what we did, whether it be Steve or any of our other guys that left or any of the guys that we saw," Rivera said. "Cam understands what we're doing, he knows what we're doing, but he didn't know what we did until he came into town to get his ankle looked at."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Alan DiazCam Newton had no idea about the Panthers' movements at wide receiver until he came in to have an MRI on his ankle.
As for speculation that Newton's relationship with Smith led to the release, Rivera made it clear it wasn't.

"It's all speculation," he said. "People are going to write, think and say what they think and don't know. But that had nothing to do with what we did. What we did was all about football."

After Stallworth's tweet, the Panthers signed Pittsburgh free-agent receiver Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood from Tampa Bay. Stallworth hasn't tweeted his thoughts on those moves.

Rivera's thoughts are that Carolina got two of the players they targeted, a veteran in Cotchery who can work with the young receivers and an up-and-comer in Underwood whom offensive coordinator Mike Shula is high on.

Rivera acknowledges the Panthers may not have a true No. 1 receiver. He also reminded that Carolina isn't the only team without a bona fide No. 1. Seattle won the Super Bowl with a relatively average group of wide receivers.

"I don't think you need a true No. 1 that needs to do everything," Rivera said. "I don't think you need to have a guy like Detroit's Calvin Johnson. You don't need to have that. You need to have a guy that is going to account for, if there are 10 catches in a game for your wide receiver, he gets six of them."

Maybe one day soon we'll hear directly from Newton on everything that has transpired, including his surgery.

Maybe Stallworth will tweet about that, too.
We take this break from the Carolina Panthers' search for wide receivers in free agency to look at a potential candidate in the NFL draft.

Meet Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro.

While Carolina entertained Pittsburgh Steelers free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery on Monday, other members of the staff were just up the interstate looking at the Demon Deacons' all-time leading receiver at NFL pro day.

Campanaro (5-foot-9, 192 pounds) isn't among the top tier receivers in the draft. He's likely a middle-round pick.

But after posting a time of 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash last month at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, he's starting to turn a few more heads. Carolina already was aware of him because of his connection with wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, a former Wake Forest star.

Campanaro told during the combine that he's a combination of Proehl, a great route-runner, and Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver who was cut last week.

Campanaro caught 67 passes for 803 yards and six touchdowns last season despite missing the final three games with a broken collarbone.

He finished his college career with a school-record 229 catches for 2,506 yards and 14 touchdowns. Proehl had 188 catches for a school-record 2,949 yards and 25 touchdowns at Wake.

So as the Panthers attempt to rebuild their receiving corps from scratch after cutting Smith and losing Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon in free agency, keep an eye on Campanaro.

He could be a good complementary player if the Panthers can sign a couple of veterans and draft what coach Ron Rivera has called a dynamic receiver in the first two rounds.

The Panthers already are talking to Cotchery as mentioned above, and Green Bay free agent James Jones told ESPN's Josina Anderson on Sunday he would "love to play with'' quarterback Cam Newton.

Stay tuned.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season. Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Finally, some good news for the Carolina Panthers on the wide receiver front.

Green Bay Packers free agent James Jones told ESPN's Josina Anderson on Sunday that he would "love the opportunity to play for the Carolina Panthers'' and quarterback Cam Newton.

Also, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, 31, reportedly will visit Carolina on Monday.

The Panthers are looking to completely rebuild their receiving corps. They cut Steve Smith, their all-time leading receiver, on Thursday. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday. No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. signed with Arizona and No. 4 Domenik Hixon went to Chicago.

That leaves Carolina without a wide receiver with an NFL catch.

Jones has been relatively quiet during the first week of free agency, but he has been on the Panthers' radar -- particularly since Hakeem Nicks signed with Indianapolis on Friday.

He has 310 career receptions for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns during his seven-year career. He had a career-best 14 touchdown catches in 2012.

Cotchery is heading into his 11th season after being selected by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. Has spent the past three seasons at Pittsburgh, where he had 46 catches for 602 yards and a career-best 10 touchdowns this past season.

He has 437 career catches for 5,558 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Neither Jones nor Cotchery is considered a bona fide No. 1 receiver, but for a team with no experience at the position either or both would fill a huge need.

The Panthers also are expected to take a wide receiver in the first two rounds of the draft.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Chuck BurtonGeneral manager Dave Gettleman has made some questionable decisions in the first week of free agency.

Let's go back to January, two days after the Carolina Panthers finished a 12-4 season, to when Dave Gettleman assessed his first year as an NFL general manager.

"The gaffes I made this year didn’t hurt us too much,'' he said.

A reporter: "Gaffes?''

Gettleman responded with a laugh and a Ric Flair-like "Wooo!," followed by a moment of awkward silence, followed by "let's say I didn't make any big ones.''

Back to the present. Gettleman appears to have made several gaffes a week into his second venture into free agency. Whether one or more turn into big ones remains to be seen. Whether they'll ultimately be called gafffes also remains to be seen because we're a long way from the final snapshot of this team.

But for the sake of evaluation, let's take a look at what could be called the gaffes of the past week:

Gaffe 1: Cutting wide receiver Steve Smith. This was a gaffe on several levels, although Gettleman may disagree. First, the way it was handled. Either Gettleman never should have said he was reviewing whether Smith would have a spot on the team or he should have consulted Smith in some way. Teams part with long-time contributors all the time. But it's the way they part that most remember. Second, that Smith signed with Baltimore a day later, and had strong interest from New England, Seattle and San Diego, tells me somebody thought he has something to offer at 34.

Gaffe 2: Losing No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots), No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and No. 3 Domenik Hixon (Bears) to free agency after cutting Smith left quarterback Cam Newton without a wide receiver with an NFL catch. I'm not suggesting all three or even two should have been re-signed, but you've got to find a way to keep one for some sort of continuity going into 2014.

Gaffe 3: Losing free agent wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to Indianapolis. Nicks said Gettleman made an offer. It apparently wasn't enough. Maybe Gettleman never really wanted Nicks that badly. Maybe he's targeted Green Bay wide receiver James Jones, who remains on the open market. Maybe he has somebody else in mind to be the veteran leader at this position. But for the moment, losing the hometown Nicks on top of gaffes 1 and 2 seems like a mistake.

Gaffe 4: Not re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell. To be fair, the Panthers probably couldn't compete with the five-year, $25 million deal Mitchell got from Pittsburgh. But to lose a 26-year-old on his way up and replace him with 31-year-old Roman Harper on his way down isn't a long-term solution.

Gaffe 5: Losing Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Collins to NFC South rival Tampa Bay. He would have been a nice replacement for recently-retired Jordan Gross protecting Newton's blindside. Unless something changes, that job will go to right tackle Byron Bell or a rookie from the draft. Stay tuned.

Again, to be fair, Gettleman didn't have the money to make 3, 4 and 5 happen. The Panthers, after saving about $2 million in cap room by cutting Smith, had only about $8 million before Saturday's signing of Harper to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million.

But had one or two of those happened the others wouldn't seem as significant.

Let's go back to Gettleman two days after the season. Perhaps the following comments he made will help put some of this in perspective that we don't all understand at the moment.

"The truth of the matter is, everybody is on the outside looking in,'' he said. "The fact of the matter is, there's stuff going on behind closed doors that we don't know about. I don't care what team it is. I don't care what sport it is. You don't know all the facts. Unless you know all the facts all you're doing is speculating.''

Fortunately for Gettleman, he won't have to evaluate his second year as a general manager for another 10 months.

That's when we'll know if the above gaffes are big or small, or gaffes at all.
Dave GettlemanAP Photo/Johnny VyGM Dave Gettleman's methodical approach to free agency has some fans panicking that the Panthers are getting left behind.
Some of you in Carolina Pantherland are in a state of panic this morning. OK, a lot of you are.

You are freaking out that your team dumped all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and got nothing in return. Losing free safety Mike Mitchell (Steelers), wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals), wide receiver Domenik Hixon (Bears) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Vikings) to other teams makes it feel worse.

Then you see Cincinnati offensive tackle Anthony Collins pick Tampa Bay over Carolina at a big need position. You see New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks visiting Indianapolis and wonder if general manager Dave Gettleman & Co. will get a shot at him.

The re-signing of backup quarterback Derek Anderson to a two-year deal hasn't eased your pain.

Bye-bye, Super Bowl hopes. First to worst in the NFC South.

I've read all the emails and complaints. I visited with some of you at a small rally protesting the release of Smith outside Bank of America Stadium. I know what you're thinking. You've lost complete faith in the organization. You're ready to tar and feather Gettleman.

Former Carolina lineman Frank Garcia, now the host of a local radio show, got into it with me on Twitter on Thursday night. He said this doesn't have the feel of a team trying to get better, trying to compete for a championship.

So I asked if this felt like a team trying to compete for a Super Bowl three days into free agency a year ago. I asked if the Panthers felt like a team trying to win a Super Bowl in March of 1996, when he was a player.

He agreed not.

The '96 team, if you've forgotten, reached the NFC Championship. And last year's team, which you shouldn't have forgotten yet, went 12-4.

Feel better now?

The question that needs to be asked is this: What have the Panthers lost beyond the faith of many of their fans?

Mitchell played a big role in the defense ranking No. 2 in 2013, but before then he'd done nothing to warrant any team getting upset over losing him. It's why Gettleman got him for a bargain.

Did you really want the team investing $25 million over five years for him?

Munnerlyn had a nice career at Carolina, but most agree the biggest weakness last season was the secondary -- specifically the corners. Was he worth $14.25 million over three years?

Ginn was coming off a season in which he caught two passes -- two -- for San Francisco when the Panthers signed him to a one-year deal. Was he worth a three-year investment?

And then there's Smith. While his release was a public relations disaster (though I don't agree he would have been a locker room distraction), he will be 35 in May and even he admitted he's not a No. 1 receiver anymore.

That means he's not worth $7 million on the cap this season.

While the team may have been better off adding another veteran receiver to let Smith move to the slot and then drafting yet another in the first or second round, the situation isn't that dire.

Remember, as a rookie in 2001 Smith caught 10 passes. Then-coach George Seifert thought he was nothing more than a great kick returner who could run the occasional end around.

Two years later, Smith caught 88 passes for 1,110 yards, and became a star. Then he became a local legend.

And the Panthers got him in the third round.

So for all the panic out there, remember it's just March. Consider, if Gettleman really wanted Smith and those that went elsewhere, he probably could have found a way to keep them.

He was prepared to lose most of them.

When you begin the offseason with 21 unrestricted free agents, you are going to lose a lot of them.

The tortoise sometimes wins the race.

What the Panthers are doing in free agency -- Smith's release aside -- is no different than a year ago. If they can get Nicks for a reasonable price they will, but they'll see what others are offering before mortgaging the farm.

And don't lose sight of the fact Nicks caught only 47 passes last season, or that he's never had a season with more than 79 catches.

Don't worry. Marvin McNutt won't be Cam Newton's No. 1 target this season. Gettleman is a football guy who knows talent. Based on what he did with the New York Giants and in one season at Carolina, he does a good job of finding the so-called diamonds in the rough.

He proved a year ago to be savvy in the draft, as well.

As mentioned at the beginning of free agency, patience.

The Panthers won't sign a lot of big names to big contracts like NFC South rival Tampa Bay has done, but the Buccaneers are coming off a 4-12 season and have a new coach. They needed to swing for the fences a few times.

So while the state of panic in Pantherland is understandable, it's a bit premature.

Last time I looked, they don't play the Super Bowl in March.
Lamarr Houston's five-year, $35 million contract was a start, but the Bears had been sending out clear signals the organization intended to further address defensive end via free agency.

Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Young fit the mold of what the Bears were searching for.

While the Bears never had serious interest in former Minnesota Vikings star pass-rusher Jared Allen, Young’s three-year, $9 million signing allows general manager Phil Emery to continue his mission of getting younger on defense, while at the same time stealing a productive player from the division rival Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/Richard LipskiWillie Young posted 47 tackles and three sacks last season for the Detroit Lions.
Young started 15 games for the Lions last year and recorded 47 tackles and three sacks. But the 6-foot-4, 251-pound edge rusher has a reputation for being extremely disruptive when asked to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Young also has ties to Bears coach Marc Trestman from their time spent together at NC State.

To add some perspective, Julius Peppers was scheduled to earn $14 million in 2014 and eat up $18,183,333 worth of cap space. Young lands in Chicago at a fraction of the cost, and at six years younger than Peppers, figures to have a much greater impact on the Bears’ defense for the next several seasons.

Young probably isn’t a household name in the NFL, but the deal looks solid on the surface.

For all the criticism directed toward the Bears’ secondary in 2013, notably the safeties, the front four needed the most work in the offseason. Houston and Young represent a significant upgrade over what the Bears lined up last year at defensive end when the club barely managed to muster a pass rush or effectively stop the run.

The Bears simply weren’t in a position to wait and see when Corey Wootton recovered from offseason hip surgery to make their second move at defensive end in free agency. Maybe Wootton is back in the mix when healthy (June or July), but with a thin crop of defensive ends expected to be available in May’s NFL draft, the Bears knew they had to be aggressive in free agency in regards to the position.

The respective contracts of Houston and Young speaks to the dire situation the Bears found themselves in on the defensive line. In total, the Bears awarded deals totaling eight years, $44 million to defensive ends, while safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and Jordan Senn and wide receiver Domenik Hixon all received modest deals by comparison.

Instead of rolling the dice on older and somewhat more established defensive ends on the market, the Bears secured the bookends of their defensive line for the future.

In free agency, it isn’t always about reeling in the biggest names. It’s about making the moves that make the most sense for the health of the franchise.

So this is how Steve Smith's career with the Carolina Panthers is going to end. Not with an emotional, animated outburst that defined him much of the past 13 seasons, but with a inspirational quote surrounded by clouds on Twitter.

"Some people are going to leave, but that's not the end of the End of your Story. That's the End of their Part in your Story," said the quote Smith put on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.

Above the quote Smith wrote: "God has a plan... sometimes it just hurts [to] find out what it is."

Carolina's all-time leading receiver is taking the high road. He declined to comment on his agent, Derrick Fox, saying he is "not going to play for the Panthers next year."

That doesn't sound like the player the Panthers feel could threaten the leadership of quarterback Cam Newton, which before this past season wasn't considered a leader at all by many of his teammates.

Fox told me on Tuesday he hasn't heard from the Panthers, just as he has said practically every day since general manager Dave Gettleman said his client's future with the team was under evaluation, just as he has said since reports surfaced that the team was trying to trade Smith.

But Fox "knows" the end is coming, whether it's in a trade that won't happen because of Smith's contract or an outright release that will cost Carolina $3 million in guaranteed money and another $2 million in deferred bonus.

Exactly when that day will come -- only Gettleman knows. And Gettleman hasn't commented on Smith since he told reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis that "Steve's had a great career. None of us are here forever."

Since then, Smith has gotten public sentiment.

Gettleman? Not so much.

I'm sure Gettleman has a plan for the wide receiver position even though Smith apparently won't be there and none of the team's next three wide receivers from 2013 are under contract. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell is visiting New England and is getting interest from Denver and the Jets.

No. 3 receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is visiting Tampa Bay. No. 4 receiver Domenik Hixon is getting interest from Chicago.

That leaves ... Marvin McNutt.

Remember that one pass he caught from Newton? Yeah, the one that was out of bounds.

Imagine telling that to Hakeem Nicks or any other free-agent receiver you're trying to build a new receiving corps around.

In other words, as much good as Gettleman did building up his reputation a year ago, he's tearing it down the way he's handling this.

According to Fox, the 34-year-old Smith hasn't been asked to restructure his contract or asked to take on a lesser role and play as the slot receiver. He said Smith actually wants to play in the slot.

Now even if Carolina wanted that, which apparently it doesn't, that won't happen.

The damage is done.

Or as Fox said, "irreparable."

The Panthers have backed themselves into a corner where, according to Fox, Smith won't be able to play for them next season.

In the past, when Smith has been backed into a corner, he's come out swinging.

Now he's taking the high road that he hasn't always taken in his career, and that is making Gettleman look bad -- particularly if the Panthers have to pay Smith $3 million to play for another team in 2014.

There already are reports that Baltimore or Tampa Bay might be interested in his services.

So this is how it will end, with Smith sending out flowery tweets that tug on the heartstrings of his long-time fans while those same fans pound away at Carolina management.

Smith also tweeted Wednesday:

OK, so the #iceupson wasn't so flowery.
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.

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."

The next big thing: Panthers

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What's next for the Carolina Panthers in free agency and the NFL draft:

Free agency: Carolina has 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, led by defensive end Greg Hardy (second in the league in sacks with 15) and left tackle Jordan Gross. Three-fourths of the starting secondary also is on this list, as well as the team's No. 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.

The team remains somewhat strapped under the salary cap to go after a high-priced defensive back or receiver. The franchise tag may be the best solution for Hardy, who likely would break the bank with a long-term deal if allowed to test the market.

Draft: With the No. 28 pick, the Panthers are likely to go with a wide receiver or tackle. Wide receiver is the No. 1 need to give quarterback Cam Newton a weapon to work with opposite 13-year veteran Steve Smith. But general manager Dave Gettleman's theory of building from the inside out in last season's draft worked well. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, taken with the team's first two picks, were key to Carolina ranking No. 2 in the league in run defense.

Injury update: Smith, Stewart, Cole out

December, 27, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No surprise, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith would try to play in Sunday's regular season finale at Atlanta if it were left up to him.

"Steve said if I had to, I'd play," coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "He probably couldn't, but he'd try."

It won't be left up to Smith (knee).

Rivera ruled the team's all-time leading receiver out for the 1 p.m. ET game, that with a victory gives Carolina (11-4) the NFC South championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

He also ruled out running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf).

Of the three, Rivera said Smith likely would be available for a first-round playoff game if the Panthers lost to Atlanta and had to play next week as a wild-card team.

"Believe me, don't bet against him," Rivera said.

Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon will rotate in Smith's role as the X receiver. Marvin McNutt will be activated as the fourth receiver and will play a role on special teams.

Quarterback Cam Newton remained on the injury report as a full participant in practice with an ankle injury. Rivera does not expect the ankle to be a factor in the team's game plan when it comes to running Newton.

"We are going to do what we have to win this football game," he said. "We're going to be smart about it, but we've got to put ourselves in position to win."

Asked if he would rest key starters such as Newton if the game becomes a blowout, Rivera said, "We'll get to that when we cross that [bridge]."

Hixon's is a story of perseverance, class

December, 27, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A large, red, remote control boat took up most of the available space in Domenik Hixon's locker earlier this week. It was a Christmas present from fellow Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

"He knows I'm a big fishing guy, a big boat guy, so he thought that was right on, which it is," Hixon said with a smile.

[+] EnlargeDomenik Hixon
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsDomenik Hixon saved the game for the Panthers in their Week 16 win against division rival New Orleans.
It was hard not to notice the boat, sleek and flashy as one might expect a racing boat to be. In many ways, it represents everything that Hixon is not.

He's not one to draw attention to himself.

He's definitely not flashy.

And for the first 14 games of this season, he was hardly noticed.

Then on Sunday, Hixon made a play that made him stand out bigger than a cruise ship in the end zone at Bank of America Stadium.

With leading receiver Steve Smith sidelined by a knee sprain, Hixon caught a diving 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining to give the Panthers an improbable 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

That puts Carolina in position to win the NFC South and receive a first-round bye, if it beats Atlanta this weekend at the Georgia Dome.

"He's just a true pro," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of Hixon. "He's a team player. I'm sure he wants to play more, but has never said a word."

Hixon, 29, signed as a free agent from the New York Giants to battle for the third receiver spot behind Smith and Brandon LaFell, but a preseason injury and the emergence of Ginn made Hixon a forgotten man in the Carolina rotation.

He had only three catches for 21 yards in the first 14 games, and none in the past five. But when Smith went out with an injury that will sideline him for Sunday's regular-season finale, Hixon was prepared to make plays, just as Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman -- a former member of the Giants' organization -- promised he would when he signed him.

"One of the things Dave always says is, if this guy can stay healthy, he's as good as anybody he's been around in terms of doing all the little things," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He just knows what it takes to win."

Much has been made about outside linebacker Thomas Davis coming back from three consecutive season-ending ACL surgeries on his right knee to have the best season of his career. But Hixon's story also is amazing in that he had the same surgery on his right knee in 2010 and 2011.

Were it not for the injuries, who knows -- Hixon may have been in position for the five-year, $43 million deal former teammate Victor Cruz got in New York earlier this year.

And he may never have been available for Gettleman to sign to a one-year deal.

Hixon doesn't dwell on that.

"I say God has a plan," he said. "I'm happy for Cruz. Great guy, and he hasn't changed. I may have gotten that money and been nothing on the field."

What Hixon brings to the Panthers (11-4) goes beyond what he can do on the field. He brings a level of professionalism and leadership to the locker room that you can't put a price on.

He also brings a winning attitude. Although injuries kept him from being in the spotlight, he earned two Super Bowl rings during his time with the Giants. In the 2007 NFC Championship Game, he had a 33-yard kickoff return to jump-start one touchdown drive and recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter to help secure a 23-20 win against Green Bay.

Again, he does the little things that often go overlooked but are keys to success. Again, he does these things without the ego that drives many wide receivers. Not once this season has he gone to Gettleman or his coaches and asked for more playing time.

"I'm really not the guy to go, 'Hey, why am I not playing?' " Hixon said. "I ask Coach how am I doing and what can I do better. Let everything work out."

Hixon is thankful he still has the opportunity to play.

"I remember after I tore my knee the second time, [I thought], 'Who's going to take a chance on me? Will you or won't you get it?' " Hixon said. "It was just about having the opportunity."

Hixon is getting that now. He'll alternate with Ginn in Smith's role against Atlanta. He'll have a chance to be in the spotlight.

But when Smith returns, Hixon understands that likely means going back to the shadows.

And that's OK with him.

"From a personal standpoint, everybody wants to play," Hixon said. "Who doesn't want to be a No. 1 receiver, getting 12 balls a game? But I like winning. Winning has been fun."

Panthers' Steve Smith can't be replaced

December, 23, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula spent a good portion of their Monday media session answering questions about how the offense can replace wide receiver Steve Smith.

The simple answer: You can't.

Smith is expected to miss the regular-season finale at Atlanta with a sprained left knee suffered in the first quarter of Carolina's 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. It's not serious, but it is serious enough that the Panthers (11-4) will have to adjust for at least one game.

They can put capable players on the field to play Smith's role as the X receiver. Domenik Hixon proved that with his game-winning, 14-yard touchdown catch with 23 seconds left against the Saints.

But opponents aren't likely to develop game plans around stopping Hixon or Ted Ginn Jr. as they would for Smith. Defensive coordinators aren't likely to roll their coverage to the side of the field for one of those players as they would for the five-time Pro Bowler.

Smith draws attention that makes it easier for his fellow receivers to do their jobs. Brandon LaFell gets open a lot more when Smith is double-teamed.

Smith's fiery personality also can't be replaced. Rivera called him tenacious. Shula called him a warrior.

They didn't use any of those adjectives to describe Smith's replacements.

Smith is one of a kind. He is 5-foot-9, 185 pounds of heart, muscle and pure energy. He lives for the moment to make a defender look bad. Just ask New England cornerback Aqib Talib. He was beaten so badly by Smith on a Monday night at Bank of America Stadium that Smith finally told Talib to "ice up, son.''

Now there are "Ice up, son'' T-shirts all around Charlotte.

Smith brings an attitude. He can be overpowering in ways other receivers can only imagine because he's so mentally tough. He can be intimidating.

When asked who can replace that, Rivera mentioned linebacker Thomas Davis. That's because Smith plays wide receiver with a linebacker mentality.

"They're both very emotional guys that play with their hearts on their sleeves,'' Rivera said.

You can't replace that.

You can only hope to adequately fill the gap.

Having said that, as Smith joked last week that a dislocated finger would sideline him against New Orleans, I asked what the offense would look like if he had to miss a game.

I suggested that the receiving corps had grown to the point that the offense could continue without missing a beat.

"As a competitor in me, I hope with my absence that it shows,'' Smith said at the time. "But at the same time ... you want when things happen, you want guys to move forward.

"Hopefully, that's not an issue we need to worry about.''

Now it's an issue. It doesn't appear to be a long-term issue. The posterior cruciate ligament Smith sprained is more of a nuisance. He'll likely be good to go in two weeks.

If the Panthers win at Atlanta, he'll have three weeks to recover completely before they begin their playoff quest. The rest could do him good.

The Panthers need Smith if they are to turn this magical season into a Super Bowl season. In many ways, he defines this team. He is the one who predicted after a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the opener that the team would face the Seahawks again deep into the playoffs.

He defied letting this be another year of doom and gloom.

Nobody else did that.

The Panthers will spend the rest of this week shuffling players around to do some of the things Smith does. Ginn is the first option at X, with Hixon sharing that role.

Both are capable.

But neither is Smith.