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Inside the Panthers


Panthers’ Steve Smith going strong, but drafting replacement might be wise

By Joe Person

Steve Smith will turn 34 in May, but the Pro Bowl wide receiver and the Panthers’ longest-tenured player has shown few signs of slowing down.

He can still run past and out-muscle defensive backs, spar with them before and after the whistle, and get feisty with reporters when describing the action afterward.

Smith has indicated he plans to play a couple more seasons and call it a career. (He’s preparing for that post-football career with semi-regular appearances on WFNZ’s evening drive-time show.)

It’s not a bad idea for the Panthers to start thinking about drafting his eventual successor.

“That’s one of the things that (general manager) Dave (Gettleman) and I have talked about,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last week at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “But as of right now, Steve Smith is still an integral part of what we do and he’ll continue to be that big part for us.”

Rivera said one of the traits that has fueled Smith’s success – his intensity – can add wear and tear to his body over the years. Smith is almost always the last player to walk on to the practice fields. But once there, he doesn’t do anything half-speed.

As a result, Rivera has taken to giving Smith occasional days off, and he plans to do more of it.

“The thing about Steve I’ll always be impressed with is how hard he does everything. Not just on the football field. Everything he does, he gives 100 percent,” Rivera said. “He really does put his all into it. I think that’s why he’s been able to sustain it for such a long time.

“I think we have to be smart with Steve, make sure we put him in position to take advantage of his abilities and maximize his time and not waste his time or his reps. So he’s getting quality reps and quality plays.”

Smith was one of six NFL players who spent the past week in the Middle East visiting troops during a USO/Armed Forces Entertainment tour. Smith said he was honored to be part of the trip.

“Being able to visit with troops during their deployment, having the chance to shake their hands, look them in the eye and personally thank them for what they do is a privilege,” Smith said in a release.

RAW RECEIVERS: If the Panthers look for someone to groom as Smith’s successor in this year’s draft, Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin are considered the top receivers. Patterson, who went to high school at Rock Hill Northwestern, is viewed as a raw prospect after playing only one year in Division I.

But he’s not the only unpolished receiver prospect, according to Rivera.

The exploding popularity of spread offenses among colleges has given receivers more chances to catch passes. But Rivera said many schools are limiting their wideouts to one side of the field rather than teaching them multiple receiver spots.

“That part of the game is slowing the development of receivers down,” Rivera said. “They may run routes. They may run good routes. But if they always run the same routes, they may not know how to read coverages yet. And that’s some of the things that we’re trying to find out about who these young receivers are.”

The Panthers had a private workout with Austin and Stedman Bailey, another West Virginia wide receiver, two weeks ago. The team was also at Tennessee’s pro day last week.

SALUTING THE CAPTAIN: There might have been bigger and better players in a deep cornerback market, but Captain Munnerlyn fills a number of roles for the Panthers. Munnerlyn, the Panthers’ nickelback the past two years, thought his time in Charlotte was over after the Panthers signed free agent defensive back D.J. Moore last week.

But the next day they re-signed Munnerlyn to a one-year deal. Besides nickel, Munnerlyn also plays corner and is a capable fill-in at punt returner.

What’s more, Munnerlyn is well liked within the organization, and in 2011 won the “Good Guy Award” presented by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America to the Panthers’ player who is most accommodating to the media.

When Munnerlyn signed his contract Thursday at Bank of America Stadium, Munnerlyn said it seemed like everyone in the building wanted to shake his hand.

“I fell in love with the organization, and feel like they felt in love with me, too,” said Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick from South Carolina in 2009.

Extra points

• All of the Panthers’ free agent signings have been one-year deals. That’s smart business by Gettleman, who’s working to get the Panthers out of salary cap jail in future years. But it’s also smart by the players, who are betting on their ability to play well and land longer, more lucrative deals next year if the cap is higher.

• I was among those who thought giving officials one more judgment-call penalty to enforce was unwise, even in the spirit of trying to protect players from head injuries. But Rivera, St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher and league officials insist a crown-of-the-helmet hit by a running back will be easy to distinguish from a back lowering his shoulder pads into an opponent. After watching Browns running back Trent Richardson de-helmet a defensive back in a replay from a run last season, I tend to agree. (Google “Trent Richardson, Kurt Coleman and helmet.”)

• Former Panthers linebackers coach Warren Belin was hired at his Wake Forest alma mater last week. Under Belin’s watch, James Anderson and Luke Kuechly each broke the franchise single-season tackles record the past two seasons. But when Rivera had to wait a week before learning whether he’d be back in 2013, you knew a few of his assistants wouldn’t. Belin was among three who were fired. Good to see a good guy land on his feet.

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