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Carolina Panthers Release Steve Smith

The Panthers made it official Thursday, parting ways with the best player in franchise history when they released longtime receiver Steve Smith.

The Panthers made the announcement in a press release and are not expected to hold a press conference.

“Steve Smith has been one of the NFL's finest receivers for over a decade and has been the face of the franchise for a large part of the team’s history,” general manager Dave Gettleman said in the release. “This was not an easy decision. As a team, we made a step forward last year; however we are also a team in transition, which is a part of the NFL.”

Smith, who played 13 seasons in Charlotte, ranks 25th in league history with 836 catches and 19th all-time with 12,197 receiving yards. He holds more than 30 career, single-season and single-game franchise records on offense and special teams.

“Steve has been an important part of this team since I have been head coach and before my arrival,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in the release. “I have coached against him and have had the benefit of having him on the Panthers. He is a great competitor with Hall of Fame worthy statistics and has made a great contribution to our community. I wish him nothing but the best.”

Smith met with Gettleman last week, and the Panthers have been looking to trade Smith in recent days.

According to another source, Smith gave Gettleman five teams as potential trade partners: Dallas, New England, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and San Diego.

But Smith's $7 million cap hit this year -- combined with his declining production in 2013 -- made a trade prohibitive.

Smith, who will turn 35 in May, will walk away with $5 million from the Panthers -- $3 million in guaranteed money and $2 million in deferred bonus money from his previous contract.

Designating Smith as a post-June 1 cut would save the Panthers $1 million in salary cap space, although they would carry $4 million in dead money into 2015.

Derrick Fox, Smith’s longtime agent, said Wednesday the Panthers never asked Smith to restructure his contract, as Gettleman did last offseason with several veterans, including left tackle Jordan Gross. That suggests the decision was based on more than money and productivity.

Sources said Gettleman viewed Smith -- long known for his fiery temperament and in-your-face personality -- as a distraction and wanted to turn the locker room over to emerging leaders like quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers have made New York Giants free agent Hakeem Nicks, a former Independence High and UNC standout, their top target to replace Smith, a source said.

Nicks is coming off a pair of sub-par seasons in New York. But at 26, he's still young enough to be a long-term No. 1 receiver to pair with Newton.

The Panthers are interested in re-signing free agent wideouts Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., who visited New England and Tampa Bay, respectively, this week. Carolina also has Green Bay free agent receiver James Jones on its radar.

Smith's future has been in doubt since last month when Gettleman answered vaguely when asked at the scouting combine about the team's all-time leading receiver.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said this week he would miss Smith, but he added such decisions are the nature of the business.

"He's meant a lot to this organization. You'd hate to see him leave, but at the same point, it's out of the players' hands," Olsen said. "Of course you want a guy like that on your team, but we don't make those decisions."

Smith made it clear on his Twitter account he intends to keep playing.

Smith tweeted Wednesday that he would always be a Panther, "but I still have a lil bit of football left in me."

Smith, who grew up in Los Angeles, has connections to the Chargers. San Diego coach Mike McCoy and receivers coach Fred Graves are both former Panthers assistants.

But Smith is said to relish a chance to play in the NFC South and face the Panthers twice next season. Baltimore, which has been looking for a proven receiver since Anquan Boldin left for San Francisco last year, also could make a push for Smith.

Because there is no offset language in Smith's contract, he could collect the $5 million the Panthers would owe him if he's released, in addition to whatever money another team pays him.

Smith leaves with his name all over the Panthers' record books. He caught more passes, scored more touchdowns and posted more 100-yard receiving games than anyone in the franchise's 19-year history.

Smith also was responsible for what many fans and former players hold up as the most memorable moment in team history -- a 69-yard touchdown catch from Jake Delhomme in the second overtime that lifted the Panthers to a 29-23 win at St. Louis in a divisional-round playoff game.

He ends his career with Carolina holding virtually every receiving record in franchise history. His 12,197 yards are nearly 3,000 yards in front of Muhammad, while his 836 receptions and 67 touchdowns also out-distance Muhammad.

But Smith's production slipped last season, when he caught 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns.

He ranks 25th in league history with 836 catches and 19th all-time with 12,197 receiving yards.

Smith went to five Pro Bowls during his tenure with the Panthers, most recently following the 2011 season when Smith benefited from Newton's arrival.

Before the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall, Smith first had to suffer through a dreadful 2010 campaign in which Carolina went 2-14 and Smith caught passes from the likes of Jimmy Clausen and Brian St. Pierre.

After the season Smith went to owner Jerry Richardson's house to request a trade, but ultimately stayed with the team that drafted him in the third round out of Utah in 2001.

After his 1,394-yard season in 2011, Smith agreed to a contract extension he believed would allow him to retire as a Panther.

But he signed that deal with Marty Hurney, the former general manager who drafted Smith.

"We did a long-term deal with (former general manager) Marty Hurney and with the Richardson family because we thought Steve was going to complete his career as a Panther," Fox, Smith’s representative, said Wednesday. "Now when we find out through the media at the combine that those plans are different, that was news to us."

Gettleman and Smith did not have the same type of relationship as Hurney and Smith.

Smith was said to distrust Gettleman, who in turn viewed Smith as a distraction, according to league sources.

Smith has not spoken publicly since the combine, and did not return a message from the Observer.

"If any NFL pro scout thinks that Steve Smith cannot play at a high level in this game, that's the fuel that's driven Steve for 13 years in this business to high levels," Fox said, an apparent reference to Gettleman, a former scout who was in the Giants' pro personnel department before the Panthers hired him last year.

More information at CharlotteObserver.com.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson