Let me preface this by saying that my position is not that Gettleman definitely will or definitely should cut Steve Smith or that I want Steve Smith to be released. All I am saying is that it has to be on the table.
1. Hurney made a horrible decision to give a 33 year old WR a $30 million contract and Richardson, trusting his GM, signed off on it. Gettleman is not beholden to honor the bad decisions that his predecessor made. Gettleman dumped several of those bad contracts last year. He will clear more of them this year and more still in 2015 and 2016. The only thing that is keeping Gettleman from getting rid of bad contracts faster is the dead money created by those and other contracts does not allow him to.
2. Does Gettleman want Smitty back? Of course! The issue is whether Smitty wants to come back under terms that Gettleman can live with. Gettleman isn't going to pay Smitty $5 million for production that a lot of rookies making $500,000 a year can provide in 2014, and he certainly isn't going to pay $7 million with a $10 million cap figure in 2015.
3. Yes, releasing Smith outright wouldn't save the Panthers money this year. It would actually cost them $2 million more to cut him this year than to keep him. But the reality is that the salary cap going up more than anyone expected gives the Panthers the room to absorb that hit and still find somebody else.
4. It is not about 2014. As a matter of fact, it was the "year to year survival mode" thinking by Hurney that got the Panthers into this mess. Gettleman is more about building a team for the long term than plugging holes trying to make or advance in the playoffs (which is why you aren't going to see them reach on a WR or CB if a guy that they like isn't available ... the only thing that makes me absolutely certain that the Panthers are going to get WRs this year is because A. it is one of the strongest, deepest areas of the draft and B. Gettleman stated last year that he would get weapons for Cam this year).
So yes, releasing Smith would hurt the Panthers on the field and financially THIS YEAR. But the benefit is that the Panthers would have that contract off their books in 2015 and 2016. Because #1 draft picks no longer sign 6 and 7 year deals, they are going to get contract extensions a lot faster. It is one of the tradeoffs with the rookie cap. Kuechly is absolutely certain to get his contract extension in 2015. Newton will get an extension either this year or in 2015. That is not all. Silatolu will get an extension in 2015 if he plays well in 2014. And in 2016 it will be time to lock up Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, A.J. Klein etc. And going back to 2015, dumping more contracts (like Stewart's perhaps) and perhaps getting some real free agent help might be a goal also. Doing those things are a lot harder if Steve Smith has a $10 million cap hit in 2015.
Even if they release Smith in 2015, while it would technically "save" $2 million, the reality is that his $6 million in dead money would still be there. It is just that the cost of the dead money would be $2 million less than his $8 million in base pay and bonuses. But release Smith THIS YEAR and there is no $6 million in dead money next year AT ALL. So if you look at Jonathan Stewart's contract (for example), which is an 8,496,250 cap hit and 12,688,750 in dead money, releasing Smith this year could give them the cap space to release Stewart in 2015! Not saying that it is going to happen, especially if Smith rushes for 1500 yards next season. But if Smith has another bad, injury wracked year in 2014, then yes releasing Smith in 2014 so you can release Stewart in 2015 and have a ton of cap space available in 2016 is definitely worthwhile. That is the type of thing that a forward looking organization does.
So how can Smitty come back for 2014? Simple: by taking the same deal that fellow Utah alum Jordan Gross did. Redo his deal to take a sizable salary decrease this year and void next year. Or alternatively, to take the same salary this year while voiding his 2015 salary, basically making 2014 a swan song/retirement season. Hopefully, they would be able to work out a better deal with Smitty than they did with Gross, because even if Gross doesn't play in 2014, he will still count for $5,600,000 in dead money (one of the main reasons to hope that Gross comes back ... it stinks that Beason will count an incredible $8 million in dead money also).
Maybe Smitty will accept it. Maybe he won't. Maybe he thinks that he has 2-3 good years still left, especially if the Panthers upgrade the talent around him, i.e. get a better 2nd WR and better OLs so Cam can have more time to get him the football, and Cam still needs more work to improve his reads, release speed and accuracy also. It is fine for Smitty to take that position. But the Panthers' position is that Smith will have a $10 million cap hit in 2015 and a $12 million cap hit in 2016, and the team cannot and will not dedicate that much of their cap space for 750 yards and 5 TDs a year (and that is presuming that Smith maintains his 2013 production, which isn't a given).
It is ironic: everyone is willing to throw Charles Godfrey overboard to save $2 million against the 2014 cap. The truth is that Smith's contract is far more problematic than Godfrey's. Godfrey was never the player that Steve Smith was in his prime, but assuming that he comes back healthy, RIGHT NOW Godfrey is an above average safety, and what is more he is only 28 (turns 29 this season) meaning that he has 3 good years left. So while a cap number of $7,100,000, $7,100,000 and $6,400,000 for Godfrey in 2014, 2015 and 2016 is excessive I grant you because it is almost twice as much as a safety who is not Pro Bowl caliber deserves (although I would be curious to see Godfrey's play behind that front 7 and with above average talent at CB!) you can kind of almost live with it (my preference is for Godfrey to redo his deal to get it more in line with his performance ... to reduce his cap figures to $3-$4 million a year). But cap numbers of $7 million, $9 million and $12 million for Smith, who is 6 (actually 5 1/2) years older than Godfrey and unlike Godfrey is already in very noticeable significant decline is crazy.
So to make a long story short, my bet is that Smith is a Panther this year only if he is willing to accept a deal that significantly reduces his cap figure this year and especially next year. If Smith isn't willing to accept such a deal, then Smitty's $10 million cap figure if he plays (and $6 million in dead money if he doesn't play) will have Gettleman's hands are tied. What has them tied is that the Panthers' cap figure only looks pretty good for 2015 because Newton and Kuechly (and possibly Hardy) haven't signed their extensions yet.
Gettleman hasn't talked to Smitty about redoing his deal, because right now the entire offseason hinges on whether Gross decides to retire or not, a decision that will have to be made by next week. (And it includes an informal contract negotiation in that process, because Gettleman has already made it clear that if Gross plays in 2014, it will not be for very much money ... it will be below market value for an LT just coming off a Pro Bowl nod, for instance.) But immediately after Gross makes his decision, the other dominos will start to fall.