It's difficult to imagine Steve Smith wearing anything other than the black and blue of the Carolina Panthers, but the veteran wide receiver will start a new chapter in his NFL career after signing a contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens made the signing official via Twitter:
ESPN's Adam Schefter had the first report:
The Charlotte Observer's Joe Person reported the financial end:
CBS' Jason La Canfora has more:
Here's what Smith had to say about his new situation (per CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz):
"I love the coach, I like the offensive scheme," Smith said during a conference call Friday. "There was a lot of familarity, and it had a fresh perspective."
Since being drafted in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft, Smith has been one of the Panthers' most consistent and reliable players. In addition to five Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All-Pro nods, Smith is the all-time franchise leader in receptions (836), receiving yards (12,197) and receiving touchdowns (67).
Smith has undoubtedly lost a step or two over the past couple years, but it still came as a surprise when the Panthers made the decision to release him, as first reported by Schefter.
The development of quarterback Cam Newton was aided immensely by Smith in 2011 and 2012. However, Smith experienced a huge drop-off in 2013. Newton spread the ball around more and the overall team focus switched to great defense and a strong running game.
That led to Smith catching just 64 balls for 745 yards and four touchdowns. He also battled nagging injuries, and his age started to show a little bit as the 13-year veteran is now 34 (he'll turn 35 in May).
Even so, Smith has been the face of the franchise for about a decade, and the release seemed to show a lack of sentimentality on general manager Dave Gettleman's part. Smith's agent, Derrick Fox, didn't feel as though the Panthers reciprocated the loyalty that Smith had for them, per The Associated Press, via WCNC.com:
Where we are disappointed is the fact he signed an extension to stay loyal to the club and complete his career as a Panther. That is why we did the long-term team deal. Now we are at a crossroads where the Panthers don't want him anymore.
In fact, the Panthers essentially went out of their way to get Smith off the team. Per Andrew Brandt of Monday Morning Quarterback, releasing Smith will cost Carolina a hefty chunk of change in 2014:
Despite the sudden and unfortunate end to the relationship between Smith and the Panthers, no hard feelings were apparent when he tweeted a farewell message:
As controversial as the move is in the eyes of most Panthers fans, it may make the most sense for the team moving forward. Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey feels as though it will help Carolina's offense grow together:
At the same time, Smith acted as a security blanket for Newton, whose receiving corps is now decimated to say the least. Even though Smith isn't nearly as fast or dynamic as he was earlier in his career, he is a sure-handed pass-catcher who is capable of moving the chains.
In fact, Fox believed that the Panthers could have benefited from utilizing Smith in different ways, per the AP report:
At 34, they could have kept him and run him in the slot. Steve wants to play in the slot. But he can't play the slot with the current roster, and he hasn't been able to play in the slot with the rosters in the past.
Perhaps Smith will now have the opportunity to play to his strengths with his new team. As much as Smith seemingly loved playing and living in Carolina, a change of scenery could certainly revitalize his career.
Although speed was a huge part of Smith's game early in his career, he has to learn to adapt. It can be a difficult transition for smaller pass-catchers like Smith, but he can still be a useful and productive player if he runs precise, savvy routes and catches everything thrown his way.
Even if Smith only has a couple years left in his body, he could be a missing piece to the puzzle. He has never come across as a player who needs extra motivation, but now that he has it in the form of getting released, expect a bounce-back campaign in 2014.
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