INDIANAPOLIS — Although most Panthers offseason discussions have centered on offensive tackle Jordan Gross and defensive end Greg Hardy, the future of the teams longest-tenured player has become a topic of conversation at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera were noncommittal about the future of wide receiver Steve Smith, the franchises all-time receiving leader who will be 35 by the start of next season.
Steves had a great career. He really has, Gettleman said Thursday. None of us are here forever. But thats not to say hes part of the evaluation process. Thats just the way it is.
Rivera was only slightly more definitive Friday when asked about Smiths place in the Panthers plans.
Steve is part of what were doing in going forward, Rivera said. How big of an impact hes going to have for us, thats to be determined as we start going through this draft process and through the free agency. So well see.
Smiths production slipped in 2013. His 64 catches were his third lowest during a full season in his 13-year career, and his 745 receiving yards were his second fewest, behind his 554-yard total in 2010 when he was catching passes from Jimmy Clausen and Brian St. Pierre.
Smiths 11.6 yards-per-catch average also ranked among the worst of his career.
Rivera said the distribution of the passes was different under offensive coordinator Mike Shula than it was during former coordinator Rob Chudzinskis two-year tenure.
But Rivera also said its time for the Panthers to bring in Smiths eventual successor.
Youve got to be ready to draft a guy thats going to be able to come in and (supplant) eventually, some day, Rivera said. But hes got to come in and complement, be part of what youre doing, and at the same time hes got to develop.
This team has drafted a lot of guys in the last couple of years to (supplant) eventually or complement while theyre there, and we dont have that answer (at receiver) right now. And were looking for that answer.
Smith has two years left on his contract, with a club option for 2016 that can be exercised in June of this year. Hes due to make $4 million this year, with a salary-cap figure of $7 million. Smiths cap figure climbs to $10 million in 2015.
In discussing Gross possible retirement, Gettleman said the 11-year veteran had earned the right to make a decision about his future on his own terms.
It would seem Smith would be given the same opportunity. A third-round pick from 2001, Smith has a close relationship with owner Jerry Richardson and has long been a fan favorite because of his fiery demeanor on the field.
Rivera said those are considerations, but ultimately the Panthers will do whats best for the team.
You do think about it because you want to be respectful of your fans. But at the end of the day you have to make decisions that are best for the organization going forward, Rivera said. Thats how well treat all of our decisions for all of the positions. We have 21 free agents. Were in a very tough situation. We have to take care of the free agents first before you can make the other decisions.
After the Panthers playoff loss to San Francisco last month, Smith said he planned to play in 2014.
Contractually, Im going to play, he said. So Ill be here next year.
Smith was questionable for the playoff game with a sprained knee. But he started and caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton in the second quarter for the Panthers lone touchdown.
Smith had four catches for 74 yards in the first half but had no receptions in the second half after the 49ers shifted their coverage.
Given Smiths age and his declining production, Rivera, when asked, said it was fair to suggest Smith is no longer a No. 1 receiver.
I think you could make that argument, Rivera said. But I also know with Steve you have a dynamic playmaker who still has that ability, as we saw with that big catch against the 49ers.
Rivera said the receiving position is one of the deepest in this years draft. Rivera said the Panthers could look to take a wideout with the 28th pick in the first round or address the position in free agency.
The Panthers have three receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon who are free agents.
But losing one or all of them would pale with the impact and fan reaction if it turns out Smith has played his last down.
Steves had a great career, and the bottom line is its part of the evaluation process, Gettleman said. Were evaluating.
Added Rivera: Whatever were going to do, the direction were going to head, weve got to start deciding very shortly.
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