CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Smith said the competition at the Panthers wide receiver position this year is “cut throat,” and the 13-year veteran receiver plans to stick around to see how it shakes out.
Smith, 33, told The Associated Press on Thursday he wants “to play 15 or 16 years” in the NFL, which would take him through the 2015 or 2016 season. Smith said he’s drawn inspiration from former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, who retired earlier this month after 16 seasons in the league.
“Physically I feel great right now,” said Smith, who said he battled through knee injuries last season for the first time in his career.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn’t doubt Smith has plenty left in high-revving motor.
He said Smith is still at the top of his game and considers him the team’s “pacesetter” each day at practice.
Last week at OTAs Smith went horizontal, stretching his body out to make a diving grab. Then Rivera said Smith made another leaping catch from Cam Newton in the back of the end zone.
Rivera has said he’s had to remove Smith from practice drills so he doesn’t injure himself because “he only knows one speed and that’s full go.”
Rivera said Smith, who has been to five Pro Bowls, will remain a huge fixture in the offense.
“If you get the ball to Steve Smith, something is going to happen,” Rivera said.
Which receivers are going to get the ball remains a mystery.
Brandon LaFell returns as the starter opposite Smith, but the competition beyond that is wide open and nothing like Smith has ever seen before in his previous 12 seasons with the Panthers.
The Panthers signed free agents Domenik Hixon from the New York Giants and Ted Ginn Jr. from the San Francisco 49ers. They also have four other former draft picks on the roster — Armanti Edwards, Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares and David Gettis, a former 15-game starter in 2011 before knee and hamstring injuries sidelined him for most of the past two seasons.
“This is the most competition I’ve seen and it’s real, legitimate competition,” Smith said. “The first day I walked into the receivers’ room I could feel the thickness in there. It’s kind of this uneasy feeling. You could feel the competition. You could feel the seriousness. No one was loose.”
But Smith said that’s a good thing.
He believes the competition will push everyone to become better and improve the entire team.
Smith said new general manager Dave Gettleman’s decision to cut defensive end Thomas Keiser earlier this offseason “created a buzz” in the locker room and served as a wakeup call to some players.
Keiser was viewed as a solid role player and try-hard guy before injuries sidelined him for most of last season.
“When that happened guys were like, `Oh my gosh,'” Smith said. “It shows that you’re not on scholarship. Everybody doesn’t get a jersey or a number. The competition here, it is cut throat right now and some of these guys haven’t been through anything like that before. Some of the guys have been drafted and might think they’re going to fine. But when there’s a new GM he can easily say you’re not my guy.”
Hixon, for one, is a Gettleman guy.
He played the last five seasons with the Giants — where Gettleman was previously employed — and helped them win two Super Bowls.
Hixon came to Carolina looking for more playing time. He caught 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns last season for the Giants.
“The good thing is the teams that you see making the playoffs, they have a lot of guys that can play,” Hixon said. “And believe me, we have a lot of guys that can play, or have shown they can play. That’s a good recipe.”
Ginn is another player looking for an opportunity.
He was a first-round draft pick by the Dolphins in 2007, but quickly fizzled out in Miami. He spent the last three years in San Francisco serving mostly as a returner.
He caught only 33 passes the past three seasons.
“You can tell he’s really thirsty and wants that opportunity,” Smith said of Ginn. “He’s acting like `Hey I want to win somebody’s job.’ And there are other guys like, `I’m not going to let you win this job.'”
Smith said it all should make for an interesting training camp when the Panthers report to Spartanburg, S.C. on July 25.
“There is an open competition at the receiver and DB (defensive back) spots,” Smith said. “One thing I’m going to do this summer is sit back and watch those 1-on-1 drills because they’re going to be intense. It should be cool to watch.”