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Draft questions: Will Panthers find next Steve Smith?

With the 2013 NFL Draft approaching, Around The League will examine one big question facing all 32 teams. Next up: The Carolina Panthers.

Will the Panthers find the next Steve Smith?

Smith is staring down the barrel of his mid-30s. Brandon LaFell has yet to emerge as a reliable play-maker capable of succeeding Smith as the team's No. 1 wide receiver. The Panthers are in the market for a difference-making wideout to pair with quarterback Cam Newton as offensive building blocks.

Coach Ron Rivera even hinted in late February that Mike Wallace would have been a prime target in free agency had the Panthers not been hamstrung by salary-cap issues.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock suggested on the "Rich Eisen Podcast" this week that West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin's stock still is rising while Cordarrelle Patterson's slides due to the Tennessee standout's work-ethic and character concerns. It's becoming evident that Austin will not be there for the receiver-needy St. Louis Rams at No. 16 overall.

Austin widely is regarded as one of the most talented skill-position offensive players in the 2013 NFL Draft. As was the case with a young Smith, Austin is a weapon as a punt returner, outside receiver, slot receiver, gadget-play artist and occasional runner.

Asked which player for whom he would pound the table this year, Mayock offered that Austin "really freaking intrigues" him. "If I was in the room, and I needed a really explosive playmaker," Mayock added, "I'd be jumping up and down on the table saying, 'Tavon Austin.'"

Mayock's opinion gibes with that of ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who has anointed Austin his "favorite player in the draft."

If Austin still is on the board at No. 14 overall, new Panthers general manager Dave Gettelman is going to be tempted to pull the trigger on Smith's successor.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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