- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Can you trust Steve Smith?
Fantasy owners would love to see Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith show some fight, and get back to his fantastic 2005 numbers, when he topped 100 catches and scored 13 touchdowns. For much of the 2007 season, as Manny, Mo and -- ugh -- David Carr were trying to find one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL downfield, Smith was not worth the pick used to draft him within most leagues, and was barely worth starting as a No. 2 wide receiver. Of course, it's a recent fight in which Smith was involved in that has dropped his value even more. Now what should we expect from him?
On the surface, Smith appears to have had a fine 2007 campaign, topping 1,000 yards and seven or more touchdowns for the fourth consecutive full season. Generously listed at 5-9 and 185 pounds, Smith is an incredible leaper and way too elusive for most defensive backs. He can dominate a game in a variety of ways, if the Panthers use him correctly. However, after Jake Delhomme hurt his elbow in Week 3, Smith's value took the biggest hit. Well, Delhomme's was worse, but at least you knew he shouldn't be active for you. Smith, on the other hand, remained a weekly play because of his reputation, and in the final 13 games he topped 75 yards only twice, and scored three touchdowns. That just wasn't good enough for most owners, who couldn't justify sitting their second-round pick for the likes of Joey Galloway, Derrick Mason or Kevin Curtis, each of whom was better statistically after Week 2, and similar for the season.
Of course, fantasy football owners should know to always look ahead, and Smith is always a candidate for a big game and a run of big games that could end up being a big season, but the trend isn't particularly upbeat to think Smith improves. His yards-per-catch average keeps going in the wrong direction, even before he had to wait for Vinny Testaverde, Matt Moore and Carr to find him, and it certainly appears the Panthers have tried to address the lack of depth alongside their top threat. Muhsin Muhammad produced impressive numbers his previous stint in Carolina, and D.J. Hackett is one of my bigger wide receiver sleepers for this season, as he seems primed to emerge. Hackett has great hands and has the size to be a red zone asset. Muhammad is older than the last time he was here, but he's smart and should thrive in the slot.
It's not just the people around Smith that affects his production, or lack thereof. Smith upped the ante a bit more for owners thinking about him as a second-round selection when he was involved in a training camp altercation with starting cornerback Ken Lucas. A long-running feud apparently escalated during a practice, and Smith punched Lucas. The Panthers will miss Lucas for a few weeks of the season, as his broken nose needs surgery, while Smith will also be out of the lineup, as he was suspended without pay by the team for two regular season games.
This is what fantasy owners care most about. Few seem to notice Smith's decline in production, but knowing he will miss two games, a sixth of the fantasy regular season in most leagues, has prompted ESPN Fantasy to drop Smith from the No. 7 spot at wide receiver, five spots. Is that enough, though? Was Smith ranked too high to start with, based on the uncertainty surrounding the team's running game, its quarterback coming off Tommy John surgery and, really, Smith himself?
• Delhomme has, by most accounts, looked terrific in training camp and so far in the preseason. While it's true no big name quarterback has become an All-Pro after having Tommy John surgery, we really don't have much information to go on. Craig Erickson wasn't going All-Pro anyway. Delhomme and his elbow might not be as good as new, but I don't think this is a terribly valid reason to expect Smith to end up with Justin Gage numbers, either. Delhomme won't hold Smith back.
• The hierarchy of the running game remains problematic at this point, as DeAngelo Williams has waited for his chance to become the everydown back, and averaged five yards per rush his sophomore season. He probably won't get that chance, as Jonathan Stewart was the team's first-round pick and will be given plenty of chances to emerge, but regardless the Panthers should have a productive running attack.
• While the Panthers did improve the depth of their wide receiving corps, one could make the case the extra attention defenses will have to pay to Hackett and Muhammad would help Smith, who routinely faces double-teams. That was especially true in 2007, as Drew Carter was the next best wide receiver on the club, with 38 catches for 517 yards, and unknown tight end Jeff King was second on the team with 46 receptions. Smith needed help, now he has it, but it shouldn't cause his numbers any pain.
• So it basically comes down to Smith himself. All players need to stay healthy, obviously, but it should be noted Smith has played in 16 games only once during the past four seasons, and that trend will continue in 2008. Smith needs to be on the field for fantasy owners for the other 14 games, but based on recent history, that's no lock. He should be plenty motivated to have a good season, since he's 29, one of the highest-paid players on the squad and wants to make amends for what he calls an "asinine decision" to hit Lucas.
Ultimately, I think fantasy owners can trust Smith to be productive, but should have tempered expectations. As trusted colleague Christopher Harris noted after Smith's suspension was announced, Smith did miss the first two games of 2006 due to injury and had a standout season thereafter. Selecting him after the top 10 wide receivers in fantasy for this season seems appropriate, but not much further after that, so continue to believe in this valuable fantasy player, but not as much as previous seasons.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writer's Association. You can e-mail him here.
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