---- — CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers coach Ron Rivera has no doubt wide receiver Steve Smith can still be a dominant receiver this season.
But Rivera also knows Smith can’t play for ever and the Panthers will need to eventually find a long-term replacement for the five-time Pro Bowl receiver.
Smith is still extremely productive, coming off his seventh 1,000-yard season.
But the 12-year NFL veteran turns 34 next month.
Rivera said having a replacement in place for when Smith retires is something he and new GM Dave Gettleman have discussed and that needs to be addressed “in the coming future, obviously.”
“A lot of it will depend on how things unfold,” Rivera said. “How we go through free agency and finish free agency. How we go into the draft and finish the draft. We’ll see. That’s one of the things that Dave and I have talked about. . But as of right now, Steve Smith is still an integral part of what we do and he’ll continue to be that big part for us.”
With Cam Newton providing needed stability at the quarterback position, Smith’s numbers have dramatically improved over the last two seasons.
In 2010, he went to a fifth Pro Bowl after catching 79 passes for 1,394 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. Carolina’s offense struggled to find its way early last season, but Smith still led the team with 73 receptions for 1,174 yards and scored four TDs.
Smith was out of the country and unavailable for comment, but he’s previously said he wants to continue to play as long as he’s productive.
Brandon LaFell has locked down the Panthers other starting receiver spot and he finished with 44 receptions for 677 yards and four scores last season.
But he’s viewed as more of a possession receiver rather that a No. 1 threat.
“I think he’s developed into a very solid football player,” Rivera said of LaFell. “The fun thing to watch about Brandon is his growth. He’s going to continue to grow and become a better and better football player. The thing I like about him is his ability to get into tight spaces and make good catches.”
Rivera called this is a good draft class for receivers.
But the Panthers enter next month’s selection process with only five picks, having already traded away their third- and seventh-round selections.
“We’re trying to find out about who these young receivers are and do they have the ability to read on the run?” Rivera said. “Can they make those decisions that, OK, they’re in cover-2, I’ve got to run this route. Or they’re in man and it’s, I’ve got to run this route. It’s 3-deep, I’ve got to run this route. What’s happening is you really have to do your homework to find out does this guy play all these different positions? Does this guy understand defenses? And does this guy know the offense? Where in the past I don’t think you worried about some of those other elements in terms of scouting players.”
The Panthers have never had to worry about Smith being a presence.
He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. He has more than 11,000 yards receiving since being selected as a third-round pick out of Utah in 2001.
Rivera said finding a player to replace Smith’s competitiveness, work ethic and overall productivity won’t be easy.
“The thing about Steve I’ll always be impressed with is how hard he does everything,” Rivera said. “Not just on the football field. Everything he does, he gives 100 percent. He really does put his all into it. I think that’s why he’s been able to sustain it for such a long time.”