Although most Panthers offseason discussions have centered on offensive tackle Jordan Gross and defensive end Greg Hardy, the future of the team’s longest-tenured player has become a topic of conversation at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera were noncommittal about the future of wide receiver Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader who will be 35 by the start of next season.
“Steve’s had a great career. He really has,” Gettleman said Thursday. “None of us are here forever. But that’s not to say – he’s part of the evaluation process. That’s just the way it is.”
Rivera was only slightly more definitive Friday when asked about Smith’s place in the Panthers’ plans.
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“Steve is part of what we’re doing in going forward,” Rivera said. “How big of an impact he’s going to have for us, that’s to be determined as we start going through this draft process and through the free agency. So we’ll see.”
Smith’s production slipped in 2013. His 64 catches were his third lowest during a full season in his 13-year career, and his 745 receiving yards were his second fewest, behind his 554-yard total in 2010 when he was catching passes from Jimmy Clausen and Brian St. Pierre.
Smith’s 11.6 yards-per-catch average also ranked among the worst of his career.
Rivera said the distribution of the passes was different under offensive coordinator Mike Shula than it was during former coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s two-year tenure.
But Rivera also said it’s time for the Panthers to bring in Smith’s eventual successor.
“You’ve got to be ready to draft a guy that’s going to be able to come in and (supplant) eventually, some day,” Rivera said. “But he’s got to come in and complement, be part of what you’re doing, and at the same time he’s got to develop.
“This team has drafted a lot of guys in the last couple of years to (supplant) eventually or complement while they’re there, and we don’t have that answer (at receiver) right now. And we’re looking for that answer.”
Smith has two years left on his contract, with a club option for 2016 that can be exercised in June of this year. He’s due to make $4 million this year, with a salary-cap figure of $7 million. Smith’s cap figure climbs to $10 million in 2015.
In discussing Gross’ possible retirement, Gettleman said the 11-year veteran had “earned the right” to make a decision about his future on his own terms.
It would seem Smith would be given the same opportunity. A third-round pick from 2001, Smith has a close relationship with owner Jerry Richardson and has long been a fan favorite because of his fiery demeanor on the field.
Rivera said those are considerations, but ultimately the Panthers will do what’s best for the team.
“You do think about it because you want to be respectful of your fans. But at the end of the day you have to make decisions that are best for the organization going forward,” Rivera said. “That’s how we’ll treat all of our decisions for all of the positions. We have 21 free agents. We’re in a very tough situation. We have to take care of the free agents first before you can make the other decisions.”
After the Panthers’ playoff loss to San Francisco last month, Smith said he planned to play in 2014.
“Contractually, I’m going to play,” he said. “So I’ll be here next year.”
Smith was questionable for the playoff game with a sprained knee. But he started and caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton in the second quarter for the Panthers’ lone touchdown.
Smith had four catches for 74 yards in the first half but had no receptions in the second half after the 49ers shifted their coverage.
Given Smith’s age and his declining production, Rivera, when asked, said it was fair to suggest Smith is no longer a No. 1 receiver.
“I think you could make that argument,” Rivera said. “But I also know with Steve you have a dynamic playmaker who still has that ability, as we saw with that big catch against the 49ers.”
Rivera said the receiving position is one of the deepest in this year’s draft. Rivera said the Panthers could look to take a wideout with the 28th pick in the first round or address the position in free agency.
The Panthers have three receivers – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon – who are free agents.
But losing one – or all – of them would pale with the impact and fan reaction if it turns out Smith has played his last down.
“Steve’s had a great career, and the bottom line is it’s part of the evaluation process,” Gettleman said. “We’re evaluating.”
Added Rivera: “Whatever we’re going to do, the direction we’re going to head, we’ve got to start deciding very shortly.”