The Carolina Panthers are likely getting their Pro Bowl receiver back sooner rather later.
According to Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that Steve Smith will likely return to practice Sunday, with an eye towards getting him ready for the Panthers' regular-season opener.
Smith has missed the better part of a week with a left foot infection. He didn't play in the third preseason game and won't participate in the finale either.
Getting Smith back for the start of the regular season was always the ultimate goal, and it appears as if he's on track for that to happen.
The Panthers certainly hope so, as Smith is the team's best offensive playmaker for quarterback Cam Newton. Here's what Smith brings to the table.
Leader of a Young Group
There's talent behind Smith at receiver, but it's clear the five-time Pro Bowler is also the questioned leader of the group.
With Smith out, the Panthers' receiving group looks like this: Brandon LaFell, Louis Murphy, Armanti Edwards and David Gettis. In fact, no receiver outside of Smith is older than 25 years old.
It's a young group with limited experience.
Smith, on the other hand, is entering his 12th NFL season, all coming with the Panthers. He is the franchise's career leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
The Panthers' young group of receivers should welcome back their fearless leader.
Somewhat lost in the historically great rookie season of Cam Newton was the revival of Smith, who put together one of the most productive seasons of his NFL career in 2011.
Smith caught 79 passes for 1,364 yards and seven scores. The 1,364 yards were good enough for fifth in the NFL last season, bested only by Larry Fitzgerald, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. Elite company indeed.
Fifty-three of Smith's catches resulted in first downs for the Panthers offense. That accounted for over 15 percent of Carolina's total from last season, a number on par with the NFL's elite receivers.
With Newton still at the controls, there's nothing to suggest Smith won't be as or even more productive in 2012. Only injury can likely keep Smith from topping 1,000 yards in this offense.
Believe it or not, Smith's 29 catches of 20 yards or more were second only to Johnson's 32 in 2011. Simply put, few players in the NFL were as dynamic catching the football down field as Smith was last season.
The emergence of Newton obviously played a big role in that last season. Five of Smith's seven touchdowns came from 20 yards out or more, including two of 50 or more.
But this wasn't directly tied into Newton's ability to throw down field. Smith has been making big plays for the Panthers offense his entire career.
In his 11-year career, Smith has 34 touchdowns of over 20 yards, with 31 of those coming from 30 yards out or more.
Considering Smith has 59 career touchdowns, simple math tells that over half of Smith's career scores have come from more than 30 yards away from the end zone.
Bringing back Smith—even at age 33—ensures the Panthers will have their big-play guy that can tear the lid of an opposing defense.