Steve Smith Sr. on ‘great’ wide receivers and how NFL free agency has changed

CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 09: Former Carolina Panthers player Steve Smith speaks on the NFL Network during the game between the Carolina Panthers and the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium on August 9, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 09: Former Carolina Panthers player Steve Smith speaks on the NFL Network during the game between the Carolina Panthers and the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium on August 9, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

Steve Smith Sr. talked about some young wide receivers being classified as “great,” as well as the struggles Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are going through.

Steve Smith Sr., one of the more outspoken and explosive wide receivers the NFL has ever seen, had one of the best careers of this generation. Spending 16 years in the league with both the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens, Smith tallied 1,031 receptions for 14,731 yards and 81 touchdowns. He also helped lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl during the 2003 season.

Sixteen years on the field for this boisterous personality was enough, though, and the Utah Utes product announced his retirement from the NFL this past January. Nowadays, Smith is enjoying his life away from football as both an analyst for the NFL Network and a family man. Although, he still gets asked about a potential return to help a team that may be in need. Some may even misconstrue Smith’s analysis as a subtle hint he may want to return.

“Life has been really good,” Smith said about life away from the game. “I just had lunch with my wife and 3-year-old son, and someone had asked me to come back and help. You see, with my current job now, people think because I have to evaluate teams that I’m, like, jealous or trying to put a guy down. I’m just trying to be honest as a former player and as the respected player that I am, and try to bring honesty and bluntness to my analysis.”

But, again, now Smith is just enjoying his time away from football … oh, and he’s also getting serious about his golf game, as well.

“I’m just really happy chilling, relaxing and enjoying life — and learning to play golf. Now, competitive golf, not be, like, the last guy picked on the course. I’m just enjoying life for what it is.”

Smith spent the first 13 of his 16 years in the NFL with the Panthers, and he was there when Cam Newton came in to take over under center, following his Heisman and national championship-winning season at Auburn. Losing two of their last three games this season, the Panthers have been struggling a bit, and so is Newton, both on the field and in the media room. Not to mention, the team just traded away the best wide receiver they’ve had since Smith, Kelvin Benjamin.

Some would think Smith, spending so much time with the organization and with Newton, would have some insight as to how the Panthers — especially Cam — may respond the rest of the way. But, this is where the former wide receiver was quick to point another way football can be like life.

“People have asked me that question, but I really have to give them a perspective. There’s some that get it and there’s some that think I’m speaking a different language,” Smith explained.

“You know, I was last with the Panthers four years ago. When you’re with an NFL team, you’re with them 6-7 months out of the year, with them every day for 8-9 hours — sometimes more than my wife and kids get to see me — you get a real sense of who they are and what they are.

“But, when you’re away for four years, a lot of things transpire in my and in their life. So, when you ask me how Cam now is going to respond, well, your guess is probably as good as mine. I don’t know how he’s going to respond. This Panthers team is one that has to do a lot of adjusting, especially after trading Benjamin last Tuesday.

“I would say the Carolina Panthers are like all 31 teams in the NFL. They’re trying to figure it out, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster for the fans. It’s also a keep your head down and keep chopping wood scenario for the players on the team like it has been since the NFL has existed.”

During his first season as an analyst, you’d be curious to know what’s stuck out to him the most now that he sits down and watches the league play itself out. You’d expect him to name a breakout player, a disappointing team or something of that nature. However, in typical Smith fashion, he had a curveball of sorts.

What sticks out to Smith the most about the NFL currently is the way the league operates now, specifically how franchises are trying to build their teams.

“So, I have a little theory going on of why free agency is not the free agency of old,” Smith admitted. “Watching the recent trades take place just made me hunker down on this thought process and this is how I feel.

“Teams are organically growing their stars. Some people may say they’re just getting them for cheap but what I mean by that is teams are drafting players in the first three rounds, OK? Now, those players in the first three rounds are impact players, meaning they’re future stars, future starters or future contributors, but they instantly make you better to some degree. You just don’t know how big they’re going to be. I mean, for example, we knew [Atlanta Falcons wide receiver] Julio Jones was going to be a good player but you didn’t think he’d turn into the Julio Jones of today.

“So, you’re drafting players who are learning and developing their skills. But, if they don’t see in the first three or four years some things that they like or if they see some signs the player has possibly peaked, these teams are getting rid of them. Sammy Watkins is a great example. Kelvin Benjamin is a great example, also”

Of course, part of Smith’s theory has to do with the money organizations are willing to spend on a particular player.

“They’re picking up options, yeah, but they’re not sold on them so they say, you know what, we’ll just get a third-rounder, replace him and start all over as opposed to paying a guy $8 million who’s not on pace to hit 1,000 yards next season,” Smith added.

“When you attach $8 million to an NFL salary for a wide receiver, you generally want to see them have between 80-110 receptions for between 1,100 and 1,600 yards. It’s not 400 yards through Week 8; that’s not $8 million worth.

“Teams aren’t going into free agency anymore willing to spend a ton of money because they don’t want to spend that money on a free agent they’re not really sure can adapt to their system. They’re paying the players that they grow — home-grown talent. Free agency just isn’t what it used to be.”

Another surprising revelation by Smith was when asked which young wide receivers in the NFL he may be excited about. While he did specifically point out being a fan of Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, when it comes to wide receivers in the NFL these days, he’s more concerned with the media pegging some of these youngsters as being “great” too soon.

“Too many times I watch games with the volume on, and too many times these young men are considered ‘great’ immediately,” Smith said. “When we do that, we’re taking away from the really great players like Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, John Taylor, Tim Brown, Herman Moore — there’s a number of legends I can name. When I think of some of those guys when I was a kid, those were great wide receivers. Those are guys I’d love to play with.

“And too many times, just because a guy’s caught 100 balls in the last three seasons, he’s considered great. That’s doesn’t mean he’s great. So, I guess the 22,000 yards Jerry Rice caught for isn’t good, huh?

But, don’t get him wrong, Smith does get excited about up-and-coming wide receivers in the league. It’s just all about these young wide receivers showing some more longevity and consistency before we begin anointing them.

“I’m excited about the young talent at the position in the league,” Smith added. “These young men just need to keep learning their route tree and continue to learn their craft. There’s a lot of guys with a lot of potential, they just have to do it for a long period of time. Three years of work can not have you considered to be ‘great.'”

Analyzing the NFL and trying to get ready for a potential run on the PGA Tour down the road is not all Smith is involved with now that he’s entered the world of retirement. No, he’s also delved into the college football world to an extent, joining Larry Culpepper and the folks at Dr. Pepper for their campaign this season, proving that he hasn’t lost a step and has some serious vendor skills.

“I’ve gotten to hang out with some great company in Larry Culpepper and have gotten the opportunity to be one of the new members of his vendor team,” Smith said. “I’ve also had the chance to be exposed to the Dr. Pepper brand and how they do things, which is pretty cool. Just having an opportunity to be a part of the brand and be a part of all the things they do, it’s a unique perspective a lot of people don’t get and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved.