--According to sources close to the situation, the Panthers have made re-signing Steve Smith a top priority.
The Panthers may open negotiations with Smith's agent, Derrick Fox, before the end of the week in hopes of getting the team's leading receiver under contract for at least the next five seasons.
Smith is a restricted free agent and the Panthers can retain him by making him a qualifying offer and then matching any offer made by another team. However, the Panthers don't want it to come to that, and are likely to take a proactive approach to make sure Smith, who prides himself on getting respect, is happy about returning to the team.
Smith got angry during the 2003 season after he wasn't given a contract extension, saying he felt that Panthers management didn't respect him as a player. It led to some bad feelings between Smith's agent and the Carolina front office and negotiations were put off until after the season.
Smith is likely to command a contract in the neighborhood of what Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson got last season. Johnson received a five-year, $26 million deal that included a $7 million signing bonus and a second-tier option bonus of $3.5 million.
Sources close to the team acknowledged that they would use Johnson's contract to work out the framework of Smith's deal.
Smith, 24, blossomed as a receiver in 2003 with a team-leading 88 receptions for 1,110 yards with seven touchdown catches. Smith had five receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl and also had a huge 69-yard game-winning catch in double overtime to beat the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
He also returned 44 punts for an average of 10 yards and averaged 28.1 yards per kickoff.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's hard because we played our hearts out and just came up short at the end and that's all there really is to say about it. There's nothing accomplished when you don't win. There's no next week, it's all or nothing. And right now we have nothing." -- WR Steve Smith on the Super Bowl loss to New England