The Panthers took their first big step in trying to replace Steve Smith and the other receivers they lost by signing Jerricho Cotchery on Thursday, although Cotchery indicated he wouldn’t try to be the next Smith.
Or even wear his number.
Cotchery, who has had No. 89 for nine of his 10 NFL seasons, hasn’t decided what number he’ll wear with the Panthers. But he said it wouldn’t be 89, which Smith is wearing in Baltimore this season.
“Steve is one of my favorite players, not just receivers. He competes every Sunday and it’s been fun to watch him play,” Cotchery said during a conference call with reporters. “He’s been the face around here for a long time. So I definitely wouldn’t even think about touching that number.”
Cotchery, 31, chose the Panthers over Pittsburgh, where he played the past three seasons.
The former N.C. State standout signed a five-year deal with the Panthers, although the final three years are voidable. In essence, it’s a two-year contract worth $5 million, with the only guaranteed money the $2.25 million signing bonus.
Cotchery, who caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes last season, is the first receiver to sign with the Panthers during free agency. Last week, the team cut Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader, and saw Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon sign elsewhere.
Cotchery didn’t let the mass exodus deter him. He said the Panthers have other offensive weapons – he mentioned quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and the running backs – and knows more receiving help is on the way.
“I’m another piece in the puzzle,” he said. “And I’m sure they’re going to keep putting this thing together.”
General manager Dave Gettleman said Cotchery's experience and versatility will benefit the Panthers.
"Jerricho is an experienced player who can help at a number of receiving positions," Gettleman said in a text message. "He was particularly effective in the red zone last year and we look forward to having him in Carolina."
Cotchery was not a No. 1 receiver for the Steelers, and hasn’t been since early in his career with the New York Jets. But he has good size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and is a physical receiver along the lines of San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin.
Cotchery became Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite red-zone target last season, when he finished in the top 10 in the league in receiving touchdowns.
“I left Ben Roethlisberger. So if you’re going to leave a quarterback like that, you better be sure that you’re going to go to someone that can play at a high level,” Cotchery said. “And I think we have that here with Cam Newton.”
Cotchery downplayed the effect Newton’s ankle surgery this week would have on his ability to develop a rhythm with a receiving corps. Newton will miss the organized team activities this spring, but he is expected to be ready for training camp in July.
Cotchery balked at comparing Newton and Roethlisberger, who has played in three Super Bowls and won two of them.
“They’re different players. You don’t want to go there and compare,” Cotchery said. “I had a blast playing with Ben. I always dreamed of playing with a quarterback like him. Those three years were very special. So it’s definitely tough when you leave a guy like that.”
But Cotchery said he felt comfortable during his visit with the Panthers this week and is excited about joining a team that made the playoffs last season.
Cotchery, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., before playing for the Wolfpack from 2000 to 2003, said moving to Charlotte will be like coming home. His wife, Mercedes, is a Charlotte native who also attended N.C. State.
“I’m excited about this opportunity, and once I came down on the visit I felt comfortable with everyone on the staff and I feel like they had a great plan for me,” Cotchery said. “It’s home. I’m coming back home, and it’s just a great opportunity to add to what they’ve been doing.”