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Smith's First Goal: Avoiding Injuries; Foster Getting Feisty...
For Steve Smith, the first goal this season is a modest one. "I just want to get past the first game healthy. After that, I don't care what happens," the speedy receiver told Winston-Salem Journal beat man Joe Menzer Tuesday.

Menzer added that Smith was only half joking.

Last year he suffered a broken leg in the second half of the season opener against Green Bay and was done for the season. Smith also said that the hit he took that ended last season for him so prematurely still runs through his mind.

During one recent training-camp workout, he said he was thinking about it so much that he dropped the ball that was delivered right on target by Jake Delhomme.

"My teammates kind of laugh every time we call that play," Smith said. "They know it shakes me up a little bit."

However, position coach Richard Williamson said that he doesn't see Smith being apprehensive at all on the field. Williamson said that no matter what Smith says, what the coach is seeing on the field indicates that last year's injury is completely behind Smith now.

"He's not just fast, he's quick," the coach said of Smith. "He's maybe even a little quicker than he was before the injury because he came into camp this year about six pounds lighter than last year.

"Players don't realize it, but that can make a difference, too."

And Williamson isn't alone in his positive view.

After watching Smith go through the paces during a pair of practices last Saturday, insider Len Pasquarelli wrote the following:

"On the fourth snap of the initial 11-on-11 segment, Delhomme dumped a short pass into the left flat to Smith, who was surrounded by three defenders and seemingly pinned in a hopeless situation. Smith faked to the inside, undressed an unnamed cornerback with a move back to the outside, then suddenly exploded to the sideline and into the secondary. Delhomme hooted audibly, and he wasn't the only one.

"'Let me tell you,' said coach John Fox between practices, 'Steve Smith is back.' And, as a result, so is the Panthers' most obvious quick-strike weapon. In what is otherwise an offense that wants to bloody the defense with the run, control tempo and take few risks, Smith is the one home-run hitter in the lineup.

"And while the departed Muhsin Muhammad had a fabulous season in 2004, after Smith went out for the year with a broken leg suffered in the opener, Smith reenergizes the Carolina passing game and brings an element of surprise that was missing a year ago. ..."

There's more. ... In an article published this morning, Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen wrote: "Smith is moving better than I've ever seen him. And I saw him before he broke his left fibula after running a route in the fourth quarter of the 2004 opener against Green Bay."

But can Smith regain the form he demonstrated back in 2003, when he finished fourth in the NFC in receptions, seventh in receiving yards and second in the NFL in yards gained after the catch?

"I probably lost a step," Smith said Tuesday -- before adding: "But you can't tell."

He told Sorensen that he struggled in mini-camp and when it ended, he worked with his trainer on getting a faster start off the line, hand-eye coordination and catching deep balls. The result?

As Williamson suggested: "If it bothers him, maybe we should break the other" fibula. The coach went on to say Smith "can stop and start better than anybody I've ever been around."

And Williamson has been coaching 42 years -- 23 of them spent as an NFL assistant. ...

How about those who have faced Smith on the field of play before and after the injury?

"He can still jump, still cut, he's still quick and he's still fast," safety Mike Minter said.

Asked if Smith still talks as much trash, Minter laughed and said: "He's not talking as much. That is a change. He just goes about his work. He's making that transition from a young player to a player that everybody is looking at -- a leadership role."

Smith says he's not a leader, that the receivers are brothers. But as Sorensen pointed out: "Some brothers get more than others. There are times Smith moves at a different speed than his 21 teammates.

"If you've been at camp, you've seen it. If not, imagine the green grass at Wofford is green felt on a pool table. The other balls roll gently toward a pocket. Smith comes hard off the rail, bouncing at unpredictable angles, spinning and breaking and never slowing down. ..."

That's good news for the Panthers' offense and perhaps even better news for Fantasy owners ready to take a chance on Smith's ability to achieve his goal.

For the record, I officially became one of those owners when I selected Smith as my first receiver a 14-team Experts League Draft held last Thursday.

Ten other receivers were drafted ahead of him. The selection prompted managing editor Herija Green to elicit analysis on my pick by asking: "Smith is coming off of a major injury, yet you selected him ahead of WRs like Darrell Jackson, Michael Clayton, Nate Burleson and Anquan Boldin.

"Considering the Panthers prefer to run the ball when possible, why did you select Smith so high in the draft?"

A very fair question and one I answered by citing two reasons. First: The overwhelmingly positive reports -- much like those shared above -- regarding Smith, which continue to roll out of training camp on a daily basis.

The second reason is something DeShaun Foster told me in May, as we discussed the Panthers' offensive philosophy. "We pass to score and run to win," he said. ...

I'm counting on that. ...

Speaking of Foster. ... As Associated Press sports writer Jenna Fryer noted this afternoon, the former UCLA star has missed 30 games in three years because of injuries. Now, given the chance to open the season as Carolina's starting running back, he has been peppered by questions about his durability.

Nothing irritates him more.

Or as Rock Hill Herald beat man Darin Gantt framed it: "If you want to see emotion in the Carolina Panthers' running back, if you want to see his eyes light up, then narrow into a determined stare, if you want to see his shoulders go back and his jaw set, ask him about being fragile."

And much like he did back in May when I asked the same question, Foster bristled this week when told his rash of injuries left him with the reputation of being less-than-durable.

"If I was pulling hamstrings, or breaking a finger to miss games (I could understand)," he said. "But what can I do about microfracture? What can I do about breaking my collarbone? It was a freak accident, I fell down and that's just what happened. It happened.

"If this was table tennis and I'm getting hurt, that would be one thing. As long as there's contact involved, and I'm breaking stuff doing what I am doing, then I can't do anything about it."

Teammate Stephen Davis, who is recovering from his own microfracture surgery, told Fryer that Foster's reputation for being delicate is "very unfair."

"I could walk outside right now and step off the edge of the sidewalk and break a foot or something," Davis said. "That's football; you're going to have injuries. It's a physical sport and things are going to happen. Sometimes, they happen more to some guys than others.

"If you play not to get injured, you're selling yourself short."

Foster has shown much talent in his short time on the playing field. He had a 71-yard run against Kansas City last season, broke four tackles in a memorable 1-yard touchdown run in the NFC championship game two years ago and then added a 33-yard TD run in the Super Bowl.

But he has not played an entire season and he has just one 100-yard game and two touchdowns rushing in his three seasons.

With Davis' future in question as he recovers, Foster will be asked to carry the load for the Panthers. Can he handle it?

Fox believes he can.

"If he's had any bad things happen to him, it's been injuries," Fox said this afternoon. "When healthy, we feel good about DeShaun Foster. He is very capable of running it 35 times (a game)."

Of course, as a Fantasy owner, I could easily settle for less than 35.

In fact, when I asked Foster if there was any reason he couldn't be a workhorse back -- a 25 carry a game guy, he didn't hesitate before replying: "No there's no reason. I was doing it in college and I was doing it earlier [last] year before I broke my collarbone. ..."

He's right.

Now it appears that Davis, who opened camp on the physically unable to perform list, is unlikely to be ready early in the season. And if second-round draft pick Eric Shelton -- a promising, but far from polished product -- doesn't progress quickly enough to handle a change-of-pace role, Foster will get a chance to back up that contention.