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Whatever the case, the Smith era comes to an end in Carolina.
"Steve Smith has been one of the NFL's finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team's history," said general manager Dave Gettleman. "This was not an easy decision. As a team, we made a step forward last year; however, we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL."
"Steve has been an important part of this team since I have been head coach and before my arrival," said head coach Ron Rivera. "I have coached against him and have had the benefit of having him on the Panthers. He is a great competitor with Hall of Fame worthy statistics and has made a great contribution to our community. I wish him nothing but the best."
A veteran of 13 NFL seasons, all with the Panthers, Smith holds more than 30 career, single-season and single-game franchise records on offense and special teams.
He is Carolina's all-time leader with 75 total touchdowns (67 receiving, six returning, two rushing), 67 receiving touchdowns, 836 receptions, 12,197 receiving yards and 43 games with 100 or more receiving yards. Smith has made a catch in a team-record 106 consecutive games. He stands second in team history with 182 games played, 161 games started and 454 points scored.
The move will be costly for the Panthers, who will still owe Smith up to $3 million. As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio explained, unless a new team will pay him more than $3 million, he’ll still get a total of $3 million, with the Panthers picking up the difference between the guaranteed salary and what another team pays.
At this point, that doesn't seem to be as much of an issue as moving on is.
Indeed, Charlotte Observer staffer Joseph Person reported earlier this week the Panthers' decision to cut ties with Smith is absolutely about more than money. Sources told Person that Gettleman views Smith as a distraction and is ready to turn the locker room over to emerging stars such as quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Person added that Smith’s fiery personality has made him a fan favorite, but can grate on teammates and coaches. Also according to Person, Smith is said to relish a chance to play in the NFC South so he could face the Panthers twice next season.
But Atlanta and New Orleans might not have the cap space to bring Smith in, leaving Tampa Bay as the only possibility within the division. Baltimore and San Diego – where Smith has a history with coach Mike McCoy and receivers coach Fred Graves – are possible landing spots.
The Ravens are said toview Smith as a good fit and reporting this morning indicates they will pursue him vigorously. ...
Meanwhile, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports the Panthers will target Hakeem Nicks to replace Smith. Nicks has voiced his desire for a multiyear contract. Gettleman has first-hand knowledge of Nicks from the general manager's time in the New York Giants' front office. Therefore, the length and size of a potential contract could speak volumes of how he views Nicks' future.
The Panthers continue to express interest in bringing back receiver Brandon LaFell, who visited the New England Patriots on Wednesday. Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon are also unrestricted free agents with Ginn reportedly of interest to the Giants.
Carolina also is "lurking" on James Jones, Rapoport reported.
As NFL.com suggests, Nicks and Jones would be clear upgrades to the Panthers' receivers corps -- of course, that is easy to say considering the top receivers on the roster today are Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt. The Panthers also have Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons, Brenton Bersin and R.J. Webb.
A 6-2, 215-pounder out of Iowa, McNutt signed with the Panthers in October from the Miami practice squad. He appeared in just one game -- the season finale at Atlanta -- and literally caught a pass from Newton but was out of bounds. According to the Observer's Jonathan Jones, when Smith went down with an injury late in the season, offensive coordinator Mike Shula indicated McNutt was further along in his development than King.
King was drafted by the Broncos in the fifth round of the 2013 draft but never appeared in a game for Denver. The Panthers claimed him off waivers in October but he didn’t play for the Panthers in 2013. King is essentially an unknown at the NFL level.
Pilares is a third-year player who has been on the injured reserve twice in the past two seasons, Pilares caught two passes for 42 yards and one touchdown in 2012. He's a solid kick returner, as well. The Panthers like his speed and his hands, even if he's a bit undersized.
Bersin spent last season on the practice squad. According to Jones, Bersin runs smoothly, although not ideally quick, has showed good rhythm with Newton in practices. Webb spent all of 2013 on the injured reserve after he tore his ACL in training camp. The 6-2 and 205 pounds and can be used in the kick return game as well. Clemons is one of two receivers on the roster who has caught a pass in the NFL.
Clemons played in four games for the Jaguars in 2012 and hauled in three passes for 41 yards.
Stay tuned. ... I'll be watching for more on this situation in coming days and assessing further.