He’s been one of the most consistent players in franchise history. Everyone knows who No. 89 is, even if they’re not a lifetime Panthers follower.
Smith has proved all of his doubters wrong since he began his NFL career and has captured the respect of many around the league.
However, although Smith has entrenched himself on the team, he shouldn’t be considered untouchable from release, trade or a pay cut.
Smith has easily been starting quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite target since he entered the league three years ago. They have a special bond, but the team must start looking for a complementary receiver, or Smith’s replacement, ideally while he remains on the team.
At 34 years old, Smith did have a productive season in 2013 with 64 catches for 745 yards, averaging 11.6 yards per catch, and four touchdowns. He’s compiled 836 receptions for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns in his career with Carolina.
Smith is the lifeblood of the Panthers offense. Whether his production has diminished over the past three seasons is irrelevant—he’s been solid for a receiver who will be 35 years old next season.
However, Smith must come to realize a new role with the team moving forward, or he may be on his way out the door. It is no secret that Smith is filled with pride—he wears his heart on his sleeve—and whether or not he would accept a different role is yet to be seen.
The 5’9” receiver is due $4 million this season, with the addition of a $3 million bonus, a $7 million cap hit and will rise to $10 million in 2015, according to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.
General manager Dave Gettleman stirred the rumor mill when he said Smith was “part of the evaluation process,” as reported in the Charlotte Observer.
“Steve’s had a great career. He really has,” Gettleman said. “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.”
It should come as no surprise that he is being evaluated. If management isn’t evaluating every player, whether it’s Smith or the third-string center, it’s not doing its job correctly.
If that situation does render itself, Smith should strike a deal with the team. The team could bring in a lot of talent at the receiver position for $7 million, what Smith is due this season.
It is Smith’s time to become a mentor like former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad was to him. The team has longed for another dynamic duo of receivers like No. 89 and No. 87.
What they had was special, and it led them to the Promised Land—Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The combination of Smith’s speed and ability to cut across the field with Muhammad’s underrated blocking and Velcro-like hands made up the best receiving duo in Panthers history.
Whether the team acquires its next No. 1 receiver via this year's NFL draft or free agency, Smith can be an essential piece to the development of the receiving corps. Not only can he leave his mark with his personal accomplishments, but his leadership could affect the offensive success of the team for years to come.
For the betterment of the team, and its future, Smith should stay with the team, even if it requires a pay cut.
Like his former teammate Jordan Gross, who held his retirement press conference on Tuesday, “Smitty” too will have his day to reminisce on his time as a Panther, but how will the end of his career play out?
Will he do what’s best for the team or will he chase the dream of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with another team before he hangs up his cleats?