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Carolina Panthers unsure about Steve Smith's future

INDIANAPOLIS -- One day after Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman sounded surprisingly lukewarm about Steve Smith's roster spot in Carolina -- saying his return was "part of the evaluation process" -- coach Ron Rivera was equally noncommittal.

"It's all about the evaluations," Rivera echoed to Around The League on Friday. "We got to look through everything, there's a lot of scenarios that we're putting together as a football team."

Asked if there was a scenario in which Smith wouldn't be a Panther, Rivera said: "Not quite sure. Again, we are in a process right now that we're getting ready to evaluate the college football players. When we get back into town, we'll sit down and start talking about what has to happen when we start getting ready for free agency."

Rivera noted that Carolina feels "very good" about the depth at wide receiver in May's draft, hinting that the Panthers might be looking to get younger at the position instead of settling for the $3 million bonus tied to Smith's $4 million guaranteed salary.

It's apparent that Carolina's "evaluation" process has less to do with Smith's on-field play and much more about the 34-year-old pass-catcher's willingness to accept a pay cut. Stay tuned.

Also on the Panthers' front:

» Gettleman said Thursday that left tackle Jordan Gross was "mulling" his decision to return for one more season. Rivera acknowledged Friday that he'd like Cam Newton's bookend to make that decision before the start of free agency, giving the team time to find a replacement if Gross decides to retire.

» "I'm optimistic overall," Rivera said when asked if pass rusher Greg Hardy would be back next season, via the franchise tag or a new deal. "I'd like to believe so. He's important."

» The team picked up 2014 and 2015 option years on linebacker Thomas Davis' contract worth $13.5 million over two seasons, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported, citing a source.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" discusses controversial draft prospects Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney and reviews the offseason forecasts for the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers.

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