Panthers can't afford to put Smith on returns

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

I’m pretty sure John Fox was just being John Fox when he threw out Steve Smith’s name as a possible punt returner Thursday.

Fox is a master at keeping all options open and not tipping his hand and he certainly has a dilemma at punt returner. Nobody really was able to hang onto the ball in the preseason and the Panthers tried to bring back Mark Jones, who failed a physical, and even took a look at Dexter Jackson.

Yeah, this might be a desperate situation, but not desperate enough to put Smith back there Sunday. There’s no doubt Smith could handle punt returns. He did it very well early in his career. If the Panthers were in a Super Bowl or even a playoff game, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw Smith out there for a return. He could break one at any time.

But this isn’t the Super Bowl or a playoff game. It’s a regular-season opener and Fox would be crazy to put Smith out there as a return man. The guy’s way too valuable as a receiver to increase his exposure to injury.

The Panthers would be wise to go with the unknown -- Captain Munnerlyn or Kenneth Moore. Yeah, they might botch a return or two and that could hurt. But it wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as getting Smith hurt for an extended period.