The tete-a-tete between Steve Smith and the Carolina Panthers just moved up at least one notch. The 34-year-old receiver, who holds all possible and relevant team records, has been on the trade block, per multiple reports, and might be released if he doesn't come down on a contract that would present a $7 million salary cap hit in 2014.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said at the scouting combine that "We’re going through the whole process. Steve’s had a great career. He really has. 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, who has always played the game with a chip on his shoulder, fired back soon after.
“I would have wished that I would have been afforded the opportunity to be given a heads-up by our GM and also with coach [Ron] Rivera,” Smith told WBT-AM in Charlotte (via the NFL Network) on Feb. 26. “When I did my exit meeting, no one spoke to me about it in that manner, so the unfortunate part of it is I had to hear secondhand.
“We have to read into things and we try not to, but when we speak of an individual’s career in the past tense, I think ultimately it would suggest that a team is moving on, and that’s all I can do. No one has still reached out to me and told me anything.”
Wherever Smith is with things at this moment, his agent is coming out swinging. Derrick Fox, his longtime representative, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Smith "is not going to play for the Panthers next year, I know that. I just don't know when that transaction is going to take place."
You'll often hear agents draw lines in the sand like this, but there's been a personal slant to recent dealings between Smith and the Panthers, at least from Smith's end. Fox told the AP that the Panthers have not actually asked Smith to restructure his contract, and if that's the case, the team held onto him hoping for a trade and denying Smith the opportunity to test the market through at least the first day of free agency.
"Where we are disappointed is the fact he signed an extension to stay loyal to the club and complete his career as a Panther," Fox said. "That is why we did the long-term team deal. Now we are at a crossroads where the Panthers don't want him anymore."
Fox also said that he met with Gettleman soon after the scouting combine, but came away with no clear direction regarding his client's future. The Panthers will have to pay Smith at least $3 million whether they trade or release him per the provisions of his 2012 contract extension. But if they release him, he would count for $5 million against the 2014 cap.
In any regard, Fox believes that his client is fully aware of the reality that he's not quite the player he once was -- but that he can still contribute in the right situation. In 2013, Smith amassed 64 catches on 109 targets for 745 yards and four touchdowns for a team that attempted 23 more passes (473) than Peyton Manning completed. It's therefore easy to infer that Smith still has a future in the NFL -- but there's no clear picture as to where that future will be. Except that it's highly unlikely the Panthers will be involved at all.