Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman is seriously considering releasing No. 1 wide receiver Steve Smith, otherwise he wouldn’t have shown any degree of uncertainty when asked about Smith’s future with the team. If he wasn’t considering dropping Smith, then he would have completely backed the greatest player in franchise history and wouldn’t have spoken about the need to evaluate Smith and the inevitability of players leaving an organization at some point. Gettleman’s comments unsurprisingly irked Smith since they were made publicly, but nobody should be surprised that Smith’s spot isn’t completely guaranteed. While I wouldn’t release him, it’s clear to me that $7 million is too much. It’s never easy to ask someone to take a paycut, but Smith might have to if he wants to remain with the Panthers. At the same time, though, the talk about Smith’s decline as a player is exaggerated, and his decline in numbers isn’t completely reflected by a decline in ability.
Let’s take a quick look at the numbers. Smith caught 64 passes for 745 yards last year, so he had less production than in Cam Newton‘s first two seasons. His yards per reception averages plummeted from among the league’s best to a more mediocre 11.6, but that has more to do with the Panthers modified approach to the passing game. Instead of telling Newton to let it rip downfield as they did under Rob Chudzinski, Mike Shula and the Panthers sought to simplify things for Newton this past season. He made easier reads, less throws downfield, and thus averaged less yards per completion. Smith was also targeted less, ran far less deep routes, and he was therefore less efficient on the stat sheet.
But this is where things get hairy: how much of Smith’s decline in stats can be attributed to usage and how much is actually due to decline? Smith averaged much less yards after the catch per reception than usual, but the Pro Football Focus also credits Smitty with 16 forced missed tackles, which is an excellent total.
There’s no doubt that Smith was the best wide receiver on the team, even though Greg Olsen was the best pass-catcher overall. Although Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell averaged more yards per target and Newton had higher QB Ratings when throwing it to those two receivers, Smith easily faced the most difficult coverage. I also hate the argument that he was over-targeted, as he had just 110 targets.
It seems to me that Smith was used more as a decoy and safety valve last season to draw coverage away from other receivers or to simply move the chains for the offense. And his importance to this team and that role can be best seen in how Newton played when he went down with a sprained PCL. Newton did great at the end of the game against the New Orleans Saints, but he mostly struggled after Smith went down. Against a poor Atlanta Falcons pass defense, Newton managed to complete just 55.6% of his passes and had just 5.5 yards per attempt without his No. 1 receiver out there.
Smith was the model of consistency last season, and he has the best hands on the team with just five drops last year. Despite not going deep nearly as often as Ginn Jr. or LaFell, Smitty had a higher catch rate than the Panthers No. 2 and 3 receivers on throws of at least 20 yards downfield. According to PFF, he had the most yards per route run of any WR on the team and had a significantly higher grade than the other receivers on the roster (Olsen, of course, had the highest pass-catching grade overall).
No matter what measure you use, it’s clear that Steve Smith was the team’s best wide receiver last season, and it’s clear that they can’t afford to lose him without a viable replacement. Ginn Jr. and LaFell did some nice things last year, but it was Smith who really opened up their opportunities; those two are quality WR3s in this league but are nothing more. At the same time, though, comparing Smith’s impact to those two players will clearly flatter him, since he’s expected to be much better than those guys.
As it stands right now, Over the Cap has the Panthers with about $8.5 million in cap space, and they still need to re-sign top corner Captain Munnerlyn. With needs in the defensive backfield and on the offensive line, $7 million is an awful lot of money to be spending on a wide receiver who, per Advanced NFL Stats, only had the 61st-highest WPA total and the 39th-best EPA. That puts him as a WR2 or WR3, and his analytics were quite poor last year (the stats on Football Outsiders paint a similar picture). Does that mean he was only between the 39th and 61st-best wide receiver last year? Of course not, because, as I said before, the stats don’t fully capture Smith’s actual role with the Panthers last year. However, they do accurately show that he doesn’t deserve to be paid $7 million, which is the kind of money a star receiver makes. At the age of 34, Smith is no longer a star, and he should be making something closer to $5 million.
This year’s free agent crop at the position could include Golden Tate, Hakeem Nicks, Julian Edelman, Eric Decker, and James Jones, and the case can be made that all of those guys are better than Smith. Out of those players, only Decker is a threat to maker over $7 million. The Panthers could replace Smith with one of those guys, or they could even ask Smith to take a paycut and add another WR with LaFell and Ginn Jr. set to hit free agency. The Panthers can re-sign both of those guys, but their overall outlook at the WR position is a discussion for another the day.
The point is that the Panthers just aren’t in a position to release Smith and find themselves looking at replacements on the free agent market. Nicks could make sense as a true No. 1 wideout and it’s possible that Jones or Edelman could be in play, but the Panthers are best off trying to work out some sort of a paycut with their franchise icon. However, I don’t think it’s illogical for Gettleman to cut ties with Smith if he isn’t willing to take less, because he will make $7 million in each of the next two seasons; that’s too rich for my liking, even if Smitty is a great WR2, subpar WR1. The Panthers need to keep Smitty at a lower pay grade and find a better WR2 to pair up with him to give Newton an optimal 1-2 punch with the excellent Olsen at TE and Ginn Jr. or LaFell as the WR3 (my money is on Ginn Jr.’s playmaking ability, but it all depends on who they go for as their No. 2 guy).
One thing is clear, though, the Panthers can’t afford to go into the 2014 season without a No. 1 receiver, and it’s better for them to pay Smith $7 million than scrambling around and taking the chance that they don’t end up with someone who is at least as good. The Panthers already need to upgrade the receiver across from Smitty, and there were plenty of times last season when he made critical plays. He isn’t washed up and isn’t someone who should be replaced, but hopefully he’s open to taking less money.