FORT MILL, S.C. (AP) — Panthers receiver Steve Smith describes new Carolina coach Ron Rivera as "a great guy." Smith calls the decision to draft quarterback Cam Newton No. 1 overall "outstanding."
The four-time Pro Bowl pick still isn't ready to say he wants to stay with the Panthers, however.
Smith showed up to take batting practice with several of his teammates before a minor league baseball game Monday night, but he remained tightlipped when asked about his uncertain future in Carolina following a 2-14 season.
"When football gets going I'll be able to evaluate football at that time. But football is not going on," Smith said, referring to the lockout. "So all the what-ifs and speculation and how I feel is what everyone has — an opinion. I choose to keep my opinion to myself and will continue to take that road."
Smith, who turned 32 last month, was limited to 46 catches for 554 yards and two touchdowns last season amid terrible quarterback play by the NFL's worst offense.
Smith's hesitancy to commit to Carolina has raised speculation he'd like to move to a contending team late in his career. Rivera last week indicated that trading Smith was "not a foregone conclusion," but the first-year coach acknowledged he was uncertain where Smith stood as he comes off his worst statistical season in a year in which he remained healthy.
"He did kind of leave me at a point where I was wondering exactly where did he want to go with this?" Rivera said of their talk before the lockout began. "I will wait until we sit down and talk when the time comes."
Eyebrows were raised when Smith didn't show up for player-organized workouts last week that have drawn more than 50 Panthers players daily at a Charlotte high school. But Smith, accompanied by his wife and three children at the Lehigh Valley-Charlotte Triple-A game, said his absence was for family reasons.
"There's a lot of things on my plate with my wife and her health that my family needs me at home," Smith said, without elaborating. "That's the most important thing."
While Smith comes off the most frustrating season of his career, he said "the fundamental things the Carolina Panthers are doing right now are huge."
In hopes of securing a franchise quarterback for the first time, the Panthers selected Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, with the first choice in the draft.
"The drafting of Cam is outstanding," Smith said. "Met with him a few times and very much impressed by Cam."
Smith said after Rivera replaced John Fox, several people immediately told him it was a good choice.
"When I met Ron I would say they maybe sold him short. He's great, a great guy," Smith said. "My first meeting with him was pretty good, it was outstanding. I walked away very impressed."
Smith, Carolina's alternate player representative for the former union, attended last week's court hearing in St. Louis and called last week's secret meetings between the owners and players "very much a positive."
Smith has been staying in shape by working with a personal trainer, but the labor dispute has put his future — and the team's — in limbo.
"You just have to be patient and I'm an impatient guy, so it has been hard," Smith said. "But as they say, when they give you sour lemons you just make lemonade out of it. So that's what we're doing.
"As the (NFL's) lawyer said in the St. Louis case, 'The players are enjoying their off time.' All I can say about that is I have no choice. I'm locked out. I'm forced to do it so I'm going to enjoy it. Why complain? Why gripe about it?"
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