Carolina Panthers general manager Doug Gettleman spoke at the NFL Combine, and one of the topics was the uncertain future of wide receiver Steve Smith. Gettleman wouldn't give any direct answers about Smith, saying that he's just part of the evaluation process. From the Charlotte Observer:
"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."
Smith turns 35 in May and has seen his production decline over the past two years. He finished 2013 with 64 catches, 745 yards and four touchdowns. The catches are his lowest total since 2010. He still has two years left on his contract, but the cap number is getting higher than the Panthers would like. Smith is set to count for $7 million against the cap in 2014.
The Panthers' cap crunch doesn't help Smith's case. The have just under $11 million of space this year, according to Over The cap, and are trying to retain pass rusher Greg Hardy and offensive tackle Jordan Gross. They don't have much maneuvering space, but cutting Smith would count as a $2 million penalty, so he's likely to stay in Carolina.
Smith's best days may be behind him, but the Panthers are woefully thin at the receiver position with Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon all free agents. The minimal financial gains also might not be enough to offset the PR hit of parting with the longtime fan favorite. Smith has spent all 13 seasons of his career with the Panthers and has been the face of the franchise during their down years. A restructured contract looks like the most likely option, but Smith is one of the few reliable weapons Cam Newton has. The Panthers will likely be looking for receiver help in the NFL Draft.