CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers’ wide receiver Steve Smith expects to finish his career where it began — just like he predicted 11 years ago.
Smith, who turns 33 in May, signed a contract extension Tuesday that will likely keep him in Carolina at least through 2015 and likely for the remainder of his career.
A person familiar with the deal told the Associated Press that Smith will earn approximately $18 million in guaranteed money over the next three seasons. There is also a club option for the 2016 season. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the terms of the deal have not been announced.
During a press conference Tuesday Smith said the opportunity to retire as a Panther would be “extremely special.” He also said it cements the promise he made to general manager Marty Hurney in 2001 prior to signing his first contract.
“I told Marty I would be the best Panther player ever to put on a uniform,” Smith said.
Although Smith later qualified that remark by saying he believes former linebacker Sam Mills is the best Carolina player ever, it’s hard to argue that Smith hasn’t been the most productive.
Smith has caught 699 passes during his career for 10,278 yards with 59 touchdown receptions and holds almost every receiving record in team history. He also has six returns for touchdowns — four on punts and two on kickoffs.
Last season he caught 79 passes for 1,394 yards with seven touchdowns playing under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in a pass-first offense. Smith went to the Pro Bowl along with rookie quarterback Cam Newton.
“Steve has been a difference maker at receiver for us since he’s been here,” Hurney said. “It’s always good to keep your core players. We felt like Steve made it very clear that he wanted to finish career as a Panther. We’re glad he did.”
Smith ranks 32nd all-time in NFL history in receiving yards and is coming off his fifth Pro Bowl season. He’s spent all 11 seasons with the Panthers after being selected in the third round out of Utah in 2001.
Hurney acknowledged Smith’s age is a concern, but he feels like the veteran will continue to prove he’s still a valuable player.
“There aren’t a lot of receivers who play up into their upper 30s but if anyone can do it, it’s Steve,” Hurney said. “His work ethic and his desire and his competitiveness are what set him apart from everyone else. He knows he’s getting older. But he works so hard to keep himself in top condition. He knows with every year he has to work harder and harder. He’s just so competitive.”
Smith said he’s still got something left in the tank.
And he already seems to be using talk of his age as motivation to prove doubters wrong, just as he did when critics said he couldn’t be a great receiver because of his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame.
“People will pretty much say he’s old and he’s come out of the garbage,” Smith said. “Well, so be it. Another man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Obviously I’m a treasure here and I appreciate the opportunity to move forward for however long I’m healthy and able to perform. When I have to walk away, I will walk away.”
Smith said two of main reasons he re-signed is because his family loves Charlotte and he loves playing for coach Ron Rivera.
“The coaches and players in this organization make it real easy to re-sign here,” Smith said. “I respect coach Rivera a lot. He’s pushed me to grow and examine what options I can bring to the table. It’s been very enjoyable. It’s a great opportunity to build a stronger foundation to what we’re already building.”
This is the third time the Panthers have extended Smith’s contract without him becoming a free agent.
After signing his rookie deal on June 19, 2001, Smith signed his first extension on March 1, 2007 just days before he was to hit the free agent market. However, he was so productive the Panthers gave him a new six-year, $45 million extension on May 4, 2007.
Smith’s current contract was set to expire after the 2012 season, so three years were tacked on the end in what is a complicated deal.
Smith acknowledged that he’s thrilled about finishing his career playing with Newton, a budding star in the league.
“When I look at Cam I don’t believe anybody can do what Cam did,” Smith said. “There are a lot of first-round picks who haven’t been able to sustain the pressure and do what Cam did, which is take a company and say, hey, I’ll be the face (of the franchise). I’ll handle all of the things that didn’t go right and I’ll fix them. And he did that week in and week out. You have to be a special guy to endure that kind of pressure.
“That type of person doesn’t come around a lot. Everybody wants to win the Lotto, but not everybody wants to buy a ticket. We won the Lotto with Cam.”