steve smith catch2

The nature of the NFL calendar is such that pausing to reflect feels blasphemous. It was barely six weeks ago that the Seattle Seahawks knocked the snot out of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

Yet between the Combine, Pro Days, and now the frenzy of free agency, the gap between then and now feels far more chasm-like. The view from the other side of that chasm, when we looked out two weeks ago, was very different. It was hard to believe what we saw.

The Carolina Panthers were about to be absolutely dismantled. With the benefit of hindsight, Steve Smith’s release makes less and less sense.

The Panthers and general manager David Gettleman were in far happier times two weeks ago, though the formation of dark clouds around Smith was unmistakable. That’s when the chatter regarding Smith’s future in Carolina began, as his GM refused comment on Smith’s job security. We now know how it all ended: Smith was released, inking a three-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens worth $11 million. It’s basically just a one-year, $3.5 million deal – that’s the signing bonus, and Smith could be cut next year at little or no cost.

Smith’s decline heading into his age 35 season isn’t difficult to diagnose. Once more for the record, allow me to direct you towards a smart fellow who ran through the numbers:

After struggling through a knee injury for much of this past season, Smith’s 745 receiving yards represent a drop of 429 yards from his 2012 total. By extension, his yards per game in 2013 (49.7) was also a drastic drop compared to last year (73.4), as was his yards per catch (from 16.1 to 11.6), and his total +20 yard catches took a spiral too (from 17 to four).

It began to be painful to watch Smith. He didn’t have a 100-yard game, with his single-game high sputtering to only 69 yards (twice). His burst and acceleration at the line still shows up, just not at all consistently.

That’s not the description of a top receiver. It’s a more appropriate description for a fine secondary and/or possession receiver who gobbles up receptions while Torrey Smith does his deep ball running thing, which is Smith’s new role in Baltimore.

Without Smith, the career numbers of the receivers currently being paid by the Carolina Panthers paint a horrific picture. They don’t describe a primary receiver, a secondary slot or possession option, or even a sporadically-used home run threat. They don’t describe much.

  • Brenton Bersin: 0 receptions, 0 receiving yards, o touchdowns
  • Kealoha Pilares: 2 receptions, 42 yards, 1 touchdown
  • Toney Clemons: 3 receptions, 41 yards, 0 touchdowns
  • R.J. Webb: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
  • Tavarres King: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
  • Marvin McNutt: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns

That’s every name currently on the Panthers’ wide receiver depth chart, a place drained by more than just Smith’s departure. Ted Ginn (Cardinals) left too after a promising season, along with Brandon LaFell (Patriots), and Domenik Hixon (Bears). Even after I generously included the entire career of receivers currently rostered, we end up with six wideouts who combine for 11 seasons played, 83 receiving yards, and just one touchdown. One.

The reason for that exodus is money, or rather a lack thereof. In the days just before free agency the Panthers were deep in the red, sitting roughly $5.4 million over the cap. That’s why although they’re not exceptional and their cost is moderate at worst, the march out out the door for the likes of Ginn and LaFell began. But in hindsight Smith’s release is growing increasingly confusing.

His contract with the Panthers was a little messy, as contracts are. But know this: the Panthers saved only $1 million against the cap by cutting Smith. You should go ahead and read the thoroughly excellent breakdown of his Carolina contract at overthecap.com, but here’s the money line:

The Panthers would gain little by releasing Smith. His cap charge for the year would be $6 million, assuming his is a post June 1, and he is currently only counting for $7 million.  The team would then be responsible for $3 million in cap charges in 2015 ($4 million in acceleration and a $1 million credit for not picking up the option). His roster spot would also need to be replaced by someone making at least the minimum of $420,000. What it boils down to is that releasing Smith in 2014 is going to cost the Panthers $9.84 million in cap space and $3.84 million in cash plus a somewhat negative PR situation over the next two seasons.

It gets worse. Of the $7 million in base salary Smith was scheduled to make with the Panthers, $3 million was fully guaranteed.

Smith is aging and not at all the burner he once was. But he’s still an above-average receiver capable of being effective in a secondary role. And “above average” is far better than anything the Panthers currently have.

Money wasn’t the real reason why Smith was jettisoned then. If Gettleman quite rightfully didn’t think Smith was worth his scheduled base salary, a restructure or pay cut would have been the far more sensible move given the lack of anything else whatsoever on the Panthers’ WR depth chart. Instead the reported motivation for the move wasn’t rooted primarily in money or performance. No, a leadership transition towards Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton was needed, and that’s too difficult with a 13-year veteran around who has a commanding personality.

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers’ secondary was also vacated swiftly between the departures of Captain Munnerlyn (Vikings) and Mike Mitchell (Steelers), while Quintin Mikell is still a free agent whose career could be over, and Drayton Florence is on the street, too. Oh and hey, Jordan Gross retired, leaving a black hole at left tackle.

So with currently an estimated $3.5 million in cap space after Roman Harper was signed to replace Mitchell (a downgrade of some significance, especially the age category), Gettleman barely has a receiver with an NFL catch on his roster after striking out on Hakeem Nicks. He also doesn’t have a left tackle, and his secondary has vanished.

Greg Hardy got paid, though, and his $13.1 million franchise tag anchor is at least in part responsible for the secondary mess, the Nicks whiff, and the James Jones swing and miss too after he priced himself out of Gettleman’s range and went to Oakland. Jerricho Cotchery is scheduled for a visit after his rebound 10-touchdown season, but that would be replacing an aging veteran with a high-upside journeyman who also isn’t young (Cotchery is 31). There’s been reported interest in perennial reclamation project Kenny Britt too, which is what Gettleman has come to now.

So until multiple draft picks are spent on receivers who can hopefully and maybe start (and produce) right away, Cam Newton’s top targets come with little more than questions. Chief among them is this one:  ”what’s your name?”

UPDATE: Annnd now Cam Newton is going to be out for the next four months after undergoing ankle surgery. Ankle surgery isn’t exactly a fun thing for any mobile quarterback (or, you know, for anyone), but under normal circumstances this would be the sort of offseason maintenance we’d shrug off, noting that Newton will be just fine for training camp. But nothing is normal about this offseason in Carolina, and now during a time when Newton should be building chemistry with four new receivers during OTAs (most of whom will be rookies and high draft picks) he’ll instead be recovering from surgery.

This is when I remind you of how wildly disconnected the Patriots offense was initially with Tom Brady throwing to entirely new targets this past fall, and they were all around for the offseason program.