ORLANDO, Fla. - The Carolina Panthers believe Steve Smith lost "top-end" speed, a big reason the franchise parted ways with its all-time leading receiver.
Speaking publicly for the first time since cutting Smith two weeks ago, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday they had to "move on eventually."
"He didn't lose his speed," Rivera said at the NFL's annual meetings. "He lost his top end. Steve still fought and would still find ways to make plays. But as far as the football decision goes, we have to move on eventually. This was an opportunity to do it."
Smith wasn't unemployed for very long. He signed a three-year contract with Baltimore about 24 hours after the Panthers released him.
Rivera said the desire to give young receivers Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King, Brenton Bersin, Kealoha Pilares and Toney Clemons opportunities factored into the decision.
"With Steve around, they may never get that chance to develop," Rivera said.
Rivera also made it clear the Panthers intend to select a receiver in the NFL draft in May — and hopefully replace Smith.
"The thing we have to all understand is that eventually it's going to happen; it's inevitable," Rivera said. "In this game, it's inevitable. A lot of great ones have moved on and gone on and played a couple of more years somewhere else. For us (Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman), this is a very hard decision. I know Dave anguished over it for several days before the decision was made, and we had a lot of discussions about it. It's one of those things that you have to, at some point, make the move to go forward."
The decision was not popular among Carolina fans.
A third-round draft pick out of Utah in 2001, Smith made an immediate impact as a rookie, returning the opening kickoff of the season for a touchdown against Minnesota. He became the first Panthers rookie selected to the Pro Bowl, earning that honour as a return specialist.
Known for his feisty behaviour on the field, Smith became a dominant receiver over the next 12 seasons. He ranks 19th in the NFL in career receptions. He caught 64 passes for 746 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. Smith is Carolina's leader in receptions (836), yards receiving (12,197) and touchdowns (67).
As productive as Smith was, his fiery personality often rubbed people the wrong way, and some viewed him as a distraction in the locker room. Smith had run-ins with teammates on at least two occasions. He punched out fellow wide receiver Anthony Bright in a film room fight and later socked cornerback Ken Lucas on the field during a practice at training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. On both occasions, Smith was suspended by the team.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said they had few reservations about bringing in the 34-year-old Smith, even with his history and his age.
"Chemistry is really important, and it's something that I think every team should be working really hard to try it build," Harbaugh said in Orlando. "It starts with the type of person that you bring in as a coach and then as a player. But through our investigations, I guess you can call it, we came away feeling really good about the impact Steve is going to have on our team that way.
"He's a tough competitor. He's a mature, grown man. He's a family man. He's a man of faith. I think the world of him."
The Panthers signed veteran Jerricho Cotchery to a two-year contract, giving them some experience at the position after releasing Smith and seeing Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon leave in free agency.
Rivera insisted the team will miss Smith, even though he's not the player he was in his prime.
"He's got a lot of football left," Rivera said. "He's still explosive. ... He practices so hard. He competes so hard. I think he's at the point now where he has to manage himself and know that, 'Hey, I can't practice every day like that.'
"Steve has a lot to prove. He's got that chip on his shoulder going forward. I know he's going to be 35, but I still know he's going to be a very competitive guy. He's going to will himself to do some things. But I think as the season wears on, if he hasn't taken the time that he's needed off between the games, he might slow down. But he still has some gas in the tank."
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