SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The entire Steve Smith package was back Monday morning.
The three plates and up to 20 screws in his left arm? You'd never have guessed that when Carolina's four-time Pro Bowl receiver made an acrobatic, leaping catch in his first practice since he broke his forearm for the second time in six months.
Determined to play in the regular-season opener? You bet, but while Smith declared himself pain-free, he also still hates the preseason, saying, "I don't really care if I play or if I don't -- emphasis on hopefully don't," when asked if he'll play in an exhibition game.
And Smith showed his signature fiery side when he sounded a warning to any opposing defensive player who might think of testing to see if his left arm is suddenly a fragile weak spot.
"I would hope that it wouldn't be a target, but who knows," Smith said. "Every so often you'll come up on a chump that may try whatever -- emphasis on chump.
"I mean if they want to try, they can come get some if they want it. I don't think it's going to work out too well for them. There isn't much bone left in this thing."
Other than saying he may wear some protective sleeve on his arm so he'll be "chump-proof," Smith isn't about to change anything about his game after breaking his arm in June playing in a flag football game -- a violation of his contract.
Minutes after he was activated off the physically unable to perform list, fans buzzed as Smith lined up in a drill without defensive backs while wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet.
Smith's speed and quick cuts immediately separated him from the rest of Carolina's receivers, and the crowd erupted when Smith made a routine catch of Moore's pass along the sideline. The leaping catch produced an even louder roar.
"I heard everybody cheering during our individual drills and I knew they weren't hollering about the O-line," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "I looked over and Steve was catching passes. He's an outstanding weapon for us. Just a familiar face, a guy who has been around and played a lot of football. He's really going to help us offensively and it's nice to have him out there."
Smith first broke his left arm in Week 16 last season against the New York Giants and had one plate and screws inserted. He had fully recovered until he slipped playing in an adult flag football game at a Charlotte YMCA in June, something he was doing without team authorization.
Smith broke the same forearm, but in a different spot. It remains unclear if the first plate caused the second break.
"They [insert a plate] because when you have a break, there's a percentage of redoing it," Smith said. "Because of my job, I have that higher percentage. Obviously it happened again, so that's what the plate is for to minimize it in case it gets hit again."
Smith had two more plates inserted in his arm, but said he had no discomfort while working in only individual drills on Monday. He was seen later making one-handed grabs -- with his left hand -- on passes from backup QB Jimmy Clausen on the sideline.
"I'm trying to take my time and be methodical with it," Smith said. "I need to run routes and get back in the thick of things of knowing the plays, doing it and getting up to the line and running the right route."
The 31-year-old Smith, though, is fine if his first game is in Week 1 against the Giants on Sept. 12. Coach John Fox seemed to agree when asked if he'd be "compelled" to have Smith play in one of the final three preseason games.
"Not really," Fox said. "I feel compelled to have him ready for that opener and whatever that takes getting him ready."
The Panthers need a healthy Smith. After deciding not to re-sign veteran Muhsin Muhammad, the 10 other receivers on the roster have combined for 48 NFL catches.
Smith has 574 catches, a franchise-best 58 touchdowns, a lot of hardware in his arm and the same fierce intensity.
"Steve wants to be back out there doing the big plays and getting the highlights out there," Gross said. "I'm excited to see that happen because he's great at what he does."