Panthers’ imminent decision to release Smith has merit

Steve Smith, the Panthers' all-time leader in catches (836), receiving yards (12,197) and total TDs (73), could be a possible target for one of the NFC South clubs this fall.

Get ready for the uproar.

The contract that was once intended to make Steve Smith a Panther For Life … will eventually lead to his exodus from the only franchise he’s ever known.

Those are speculative questions from a Carolina fan base that might loathe Smith’s pending release even more than Jake Delhomme’s five-year contract extension, on the heels of tossing five interceptions in the Panthers’ playoff loss to the Cardinals five seasons ago.

Smith’s pending release seemed imminent the minute Greg Hardy received the Panthers’ franchise tag. Earlier on Wednesday, Smith’s agent confirmed (to the Associated Press) that Smith will not wear a Panthers uniform next year.

Bottom line: Carolina seemingly doesn’t have the wherewithal to absorb a $7 million cap hit for an aging receiver (Smith turns 35 in May) coming off the worst year of his career.

Especially after Hardy got tagged for $12 million in 2014.

As currently constructed, the Panthers’ calling cards for making the playoffs revolve around Cam Newton, a physical running game, an aggressive pass rush and superior defense, on the whole.

That’s why club officials measuredly and correctly decided Smith wasn’t in their 2014 plans, even though none of their top-four receivers from last season — assuming Smith’s release — are signed on for the coming year.

By comparison, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn — who was on a one-year, $1.1 million deal last season — tallied 36 catches, 556 yards and five touchdowns, or 15.4 yards per reception. Plus, Brandon LaFell, considered a disappointment as a No. 2 wide receiver, caught 48 balls for 627 yards, along with five TDs.

The Panthers still owe Smith $3 million in guaranteed money but can spread his $5 million cap hit over two seasons, if they designate him as a June 1 release (source: AP). That cap space is critical for a team that’s still trying to fight its way through past indiscretions.

It has been a priority for second-year GM Dave Gettleman.

Hurney also thought it was a good idea to lock Smith into a three-year extension two years ago — one that brought a $7 million cap hit for 2014 and $10 million for 2015 — Smith’s age-36 season.

Smith may be the greatest Panther this franchise has known to date, but he had become too expensive for his production.

That’s tough for Panthers fans to accept. Smith was always the spark, and his five Pro Bowl appearances may never be matched by a Panthers receiver.

In his short time leading the Panthers, Gettleman has been able to make tough decisions with the franchise, particularly ones that weren’t well-received. He inherited a team $16 million over the cap and had to restructure Beason, Stewart, Williams and offensive tackle Jordan Gross.

At his recent retirement ceremony, Gross even joked that he didn’t like Gettleman last summer, when the GM asked the Pro Bowl tackle to take a pay cut. But it was a necessary move for the franchise.

How the Panthers plan on replacing Smith remains to be seen, but there are rumors of Giants wideout Hakeem Nicks returning to his home area. Right now, Nicks is better suited to be a No. 1 receiver than Smith, despite a down year last season (zero touchdowns). Free-agency plans aside, the Panthers will likely go heavy on wide receiver in the draft, in terms of inexpensively grooming a long-term replacement for Smith.

Method aside, Smith’s impact will likely be felt a lot more off the field next year for the Panthers. And you can surely bet the Smith jerseys will remain in the stands while he suits up for another club.

Something will be missing next season — both in the locker room, on the field and by the fan base. But emotions aside, this decision makes a lot of sense for this roster.