Very good news today on the Carolina Panther front: Steve Smith has agreed to a three-year contract extension that will keep him as a Panther through the 2015 season. There is also an option year for 2016.
Smith, who will turn 33 in May, had a career-rejuvenating Pro Bowl season in 2011 with Cam Newton throwing him the ball, catching 1394 yards worth of passes (the third-highest of his 11-year NFL career -- see his career stats here).
As I've written before, Smith is the best player the Panthers have ever employed in my opinion -- some might give the nod to Julius Peppers, but to me No.89 has stuck around longer, affected more games in a positive way and ultimately contributed more (he has scored 67 career TDs, more than any other Panther). Now Newton may ultimately surpass him, but that is a discussion for about 5-10 years from now.
Anyway, this contract extension is not a huge surprise (the Panthers have now confirmed the deal, first reported by Pro Football Weekly, and Smith will talk to the media at 3 p.m. today).
Smith has talked about wanting to finish his career as a Panther, and the Panthers have salary-cap issues and needed to restructure Smith's contract to avoid that $7.75-million base salary hit (and $10.7M cap hit) in 2012. The only way to do that and keep Smith on the team was a contract extension since this was the final year of his most recent contract.
We all know Smith has had his problems off the field, but as an observer of Smith for the past 11 seasons since Carolina took him in the third round in the 2001 draft, I can also tell you he has matured and he tries so much harder to be good at his job than so many professional athletes do. The Panthers needed to do this.
The author of the best play in Panther history (the 69-yard reception to win the double-OT playoff game at St. Louis) and the best game in Panther history (that stunning 218-yard receiving game in the playoffs at Chicago) doesn't ever need to play anywhere else. Smith should be a throwback, one of those players who start and end their career at the same place -- in Carolina. This was a win-win for both sides. Even in the worst of times, I've never advocated cutting or trading Smith -- he's been too valuable for too long, and there is still some tread on those tires. All he needed was a good quarterback to show that.
One additional plus: the two most important receivers to Newton right now are Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. They are both now signed through the 2015 season.