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There may be mixed signals emerging from Carolina about the future of Steve Smith, but the one thing that is clear is that if the Panthers are considering a deal, 2011 is the time to do it.
Coming off a 2-14 season and embarking on rebuilding project with a rookie head coach in Ron Rivera and a rookie quarterback in Cam Newton, it's clear the Panthers have many needs to address. Engineering a trade for Smith would allow the franchise to accrue valuable picks in 2012, which could help accelerate Carolina's return to the playoffs.
While Smith would no doubt offer some benefit to a rookie quarterback, his frustrations at the lack of a competent passing game for the last two seasons could finally boil over. Forced to embed a lot of young talent, the Panthers must be wary of the affect an unhappy senior player could have on a developing, delicate team chemistry.
Smith has become such a senior figure in Carolina, that if Newton and junior receivers like David Gettis fail to match his demanding style of play, the youngsters risk chafing under the ire of the all pro receiver.
But Carolina must be wary about trading away their best weapon as Cam Newton begins his NFL career. The chances of resurrecting the league's worst offense would be greatly reduced without a playmaker the calibre of Smith. His absence would undoubtedly increase the pressure on Newton to make things happen himself during his first pro season.
A player of Smith's talents would certainly generate a lot of interest on the trade market. The Patriots are an intriguing possible trade partner. With Smith and Brady both 32, the Patriots could see pairing both veterans together as an ideal combination to ensure delivery of a fourth Super Bowl.
Smith would enhance the big play potential of the New England passing attack. If the Patriots went through 2011 without a credible deep threat who can truly stretch the field, defenses would be encouraged to adopt the same blanket, press coverage that served the New York Jets so well in the Divisional Playoffs.
At the same time the Patriots have always valued their stockpiled draft picks and Bill Belichick would be loathed to part with any. Given their recent move to get younger on defense, trading for an ageing player on offense may create a puzzling discrepancy on the roster.