During a frenzied start to free agency around the NFL, the Carolina Panthers’ most notable move Tuesday was one they didn’t make – trading or releasing wide receiver Steve Smith.
At least not yet.
According to a league source, the Panthers continue to look for a possible trade partner for Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader whose $7 million salary-cap figure could make a trade prohibitive.
Meanwhile, the Panthers saw one of their top free-agent priorities bolt when safety Mike Mitchell signed with Pittsburgh. He agreed to a five-year deal worth $25 million, according to another league source.
That was too steep for the Panthers, whose decision to put a $13.1 million franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy left them little negotiating room to re-sign Mitchell or bring in any top-tier free agents.
Mitchell established career highs with four interceptions and 3.5 sacks in his only season in Carolina. Besides losing Mitchell, the Panthers saw special teams mainstay Jordan Senn take a one-year deal with Chicago.
The Panthers have 14 unrestricted free agents remaining, a list that includes wideout Ted Ginn Jr., cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, backup quarterback Derek Anderson and No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock – all of whom the Panthers would like to re-sign at the right price.
But the player whose future continues to dominate Carolina’s offseason talk is Smith.
The Panthers likely will cut Smith if they can’t trade him, although they would owe him $5 million if they release him – $3 million in guaranteed money and $2 million in deferred bonus money from his previous contract.
Tight end Greg Olsen said he would miss Smith if he’s not back in 2014, but such decisions are the nature of the business.
“He’s meant a lot to this organization. You’d hate to see him leave. But at the same point, it’s out of the players’ hands,” Olsen said. “Of course you want a guy like that on your team, but we don’t make those decisions.”
Smith was able to laugh at his situation Thursday, joking on Twitter that he wasn’t going to jail after someone posted a link to a “Save Steve Smith” T-shirt.
“I love the shirt but it just made me laugh and smile,” Smith tweeted. “Everything that is going on I’m just humbled by the support.”
While Smith, 34, awaits his fate, a popular candidate to replace him remains unsigned.
New York Giants free-agent receiver Hakeem Nicks, who starred at Independence High and North Carolina, recently mentioned Carolina as a possible destination.
“Ideally, this is what I want,” Nicks told ESPN. “I want to go to a team where I’m the missing link. There are a number of teams that I have my eye on once I hit the market. I know if I went to a place like Indianapolis I would be dangerous with a quarterback like Andrew Luck. I can see myself catching passes from Cam Newton or even Philip Rivers.”
While there was a report last weekend Nicks might be willing to accept a one-year contract to prove himself after a disappointing 2013 season, he told ESPN he wanted a multiyear deal.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was in the Giants’ front office when New York drafted Nicks, 26, in the first round in 2009. Gettleman signed two ex-Giants last year in linebacker Chase Blackburn and receiver Domenik Hixon, who is a free agent.
Gettleman said last month he expected the Panthers’ free agency to look like last year’s, when they signed a number of undervalued or aging players to one- and two-year deals.
And while coach Ron Rivera and his staff wanted Mitchell back on a defense that ranked second to Super Bowl champion Seattle last season, the Panthers couldn’t match the Steelers’ offer.
By signing with Pittsburgh, Mitchell joins his third team in three years. He played in Oakland for four seasons before Carolina signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal last offseason.
He started 13 games for the Panthers at free safety, switching from strong safety after Charles Godfrey went down for the season with an Achilles injury in Week 2.
“First I have to thank God for this blessing and Mr. (Art) Rooney (II) and the Steelers organization for such a great opportunity!” Mitchell tweeted Tuesday evening.
“I would also like to thank (Panthers owner and founder) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson and the entire Panthers organization for their support this season.”
Known for his big hits and personal fouls on the field, Mitchell developed a reputation off the field for his sometimes brash tongue.
He called Saints quarterback Drew Brees “soft” and said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was “targeting” him for fines. Mitchell said during October he had racked up nearly $45,000 in fines last season.
Labeled a priority for the Panthers this offseason, Mitchell drew interest from teams such as the Eagles and Redskins but ultimately he decided on sharing a defensive backfield with free safety Troy Polamualu.
Polamualu, who recently signed a three-year extension, once was among the top safeties in the league, with Ed Reed, but injuries have dulled his skills. Mitchell likely will go back to strong safety in Pittsburgh, which will visit the Panthers for a 2014 regular-season game.
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