Inside The Panthers

Could Steve Smith’s next route be out of town?

jperson@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 22, 2014 

— Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith has been the face of the franchise – sometimes scowling, sometimes smiling – for most of the past decade, and he deserves a spot on the team’s Ring of Honor after he retires.

When Smith signed a contract extension in 2012, it was widely assumed Smith would retire as a Panther. He called the opportunity to do so “extremely special.”

Maybe not.

Smith signed the extension when Marty Hurney was the team’s general manager and the Panthers were taking care of their core players with lucrative, long-term deals following the lockout.

Dave Gettleman, Hurney’s successor, has spent much of his first 14 months in Charlotte restructuring those contracts and doing the limbo under the salary cap. Gettleman is freeing up cap space to lock up members the team’s new core – Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, principally – while trying to surround them with playmakers.

Newton needs more of them at receiver.

That the Panthers would consider cutting Smith, their most productive receiver last season, seems counterintuitive on the surface. But Gettleman left the possibility open when discussing Smith at the combine.

“Steve’s had a great career. He really has,” Gettleman said Thursday. “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.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera seemed to indicate the Panthers would keep Smith, but added: “How big of an impact he’s going to have for us, that’s to be determined.”

Smith turns 35 in May, and he’s not the deep threat he once was, although he’s still a skilled route-runner with sure hands. Rivera conceded Smith is no longer a No. 1 receiver, and said it’s time for the Panthers to sign or draft his successor to play alongside him.

That sounds well and good, but Smith likely wouldn’t be thrilled about a reduced role. An unhappy Smith could be an issue in the locker room.

The Panthers would owe Smith $5 million in guaranteed money if they cut him, and would take a $2 million cap hit. Given his close relationship with owner Jerry Richardson and Smith’s 13 years with the organization, I can’t see the Panthers just unceremoniously dumping him.

In talking with Smith and those close to him, I’ve always had the impression he wanted to play through the 2014 season and retire.

I think ultimately Smith plays one more year.

With the Panthers.

Impressions of Michael Sam

I stood at the back of the media scrum for Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s news conference Saturday and thought he came across confident and composed. He said he wants to be known as a football player, not a gay football player, but that’s going to take some time.

The Panthers might need a pass-rushing end if they don’t re-sign Greg Hardy. I’d be surprised if that pass-rusher were Sam, who projects as a situational player in the NFL.

Like a lot of teams, the Panthers would be wary of the distractions that would come with drafting Sam. During his first year in the league, Sam’s every move will be documented by a national media contingent that shows up for his first minicamp, first OTA practice, first day of training camp, and so on through Week 17.

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn believes Sam is going to have a rough time wherever he ends up.

“I think it’s going to be tough for him in the NFL. I don’t know if the NFL is ready for that,” Munnerlyn said recently.

Munnerlyn said because of his spiritual beliefs, it would be tough for him to support a gay teammate.

“I don’t know what else I can say, the right words to say, because I don’t want to offend anybody or get on anybody’s bad side. But I don’t believe in that,” Munnerlyn said. “I don’t believe in what he’s doing, but that’s him. That’s all I can say.”

Hog heaven

Gettleman loves big guys, and nothing he saw during the playoffs changed his mind. Gettleman referenced the Panthers’ goal line struggles against San Francisco, and Seattle’s defensive dominance in reiterating his preference for “Hog Mollies.”

“The game is evolving, the style of play’s evolving, but it’s a big man’s game. Big men win. It’s just the way it is,” he said. “And you look at Seattle, they’ve got heavy bodies up front. A couple linebackers are a little bit smaller, but that secondary’s monstrous.”

Gettleman said improving the offensive line depth is an offseason goal, but added he would continue to draft the best available player rather than filling a need. But given Jordan Gross’ imminent retirement – whether it’s this year or next – it’s not a stretch to suggest the Panthers could draft one or more offensive linemen after taking two D-linemen last year.

One guy to watch: Clemson tackle Brandon Thomas, who ran a solid 40 time (5.09 seconds) and did 35 reps in the 225-pound bench Saturday. Thomas, who could play guard or tackle, could be a value pick in the middle rounds.

Boyd wants to start

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd met with the Panthers on Friday, but would prefer to go to a team where he’d have a chance to start.

“I think if I go to the Panthers it’d be pretty late, and I wouldn’t be looking forward to it,” said Boyd, who has visited with 20 teams.

While quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and A.J. McCarron are not throwing at the combine, Boyd said he never considered sitting out the passing sessions.

“It’s not even in my competitive nature,” he said. “Andrew Luck threw. Cam threw. Why wouldn’t I go out there and throw?”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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