At some point, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith will have a press conference very similar to the one held Wednesday for Jordan Gross at Bank of America Stadium.
But when that happens is still to be decided, and those in control of Smith’s future with the Panthers have yet to say in what direction they’re going.
Smith, who just wrapped up his 13th season with the Panthers, is in limbo. For the second time since general manager Dave Gettleman first floated the idea of Smith’s career ending sooner than Smith thought, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was noncommittal about where – if at all – Smith fits in Carolina’s plans.
“My understanding is yes (he wants to come back),” Rivera said. “We have to go through our process. We have to do the things we need to do before we start coming out and talking about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. We know what we want to do. We’re working on plans right now. We’ll get together with Dave in the next few days, and we’ll go forward.”
Rivera acknowledged the team needs to have a plan in place before the start of free agency on March 11. He said evaluations could culminate early next week, leaving a small window between then and the start of free agency to map out Smith’s future with the franchise.
Gettleman said last week at the NFL combine that “Steve’s had a great career” and that “none of us are here forever.” Smith was in Utah with his wife when he heard the comments and admitted he was surprised by them.
“When you speak of an individual’s career in the past tense, it would suggest that a team is moving on,” Smith told WBT radio on Tuesday. “No one has still reached out to me and told me anything. My agent has contacted the team and just trying to find out what’s going on because to be honest I have no idea what my future holds.”
Rivera said the team has not directly engaged with Smith about his future, saying that with free agency, the combine and pre-draft preparations, there’s a lot going on.
“I would have wished that I would have been ... given a heads up by our GM and coach Rivera when I did my exit meeting,” Smith said on WBT radio. “No one spoke to me about it, in that manner. The unfortunate part of it was I had to hear it second-hand; I didn’t get to hear it behind closed doors or face-to-face. I heard it through third party or through the Internet. That part, to be honest and transparent, is a little discouraging.”
Rivera reiterated that if Smith does return, his role is still to be determined. Smith, who will be 35 at the start of the season, caught 64 passes for 745 yards. His 11.6 yards per catch average was his lowest since the 2007 season.
Should the Panthers cut Smith, they would owe him about $5 million in guaranteed money and would take a $2 million cap hit.
At the news conference for Gross, Smith politely declined to answer any questions about his future. He was there to celebrate Gross – a teammate with whom he’s shared a huddle for more than a decade dating to their time at Utah.
But Gross had some words of advice for a friend who’s going through one of the most uncertain times in his lengthy career.
“I told him, ‘Just so you know, this is an unbelievable feeling to go out playing for one team and knowing it was my choice,’ ” Gross said. “We’ll see what happens. He’s an outstanding player. I love that guy.”
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