NFC South top 25: No. 8

We continue our series of my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 8:

Steve Smith, wide receiver, Panthers

What he did in 2011: Caught 79 passes for 1,394 yards and seven touchdowns. Easily his best season since 2008 as Carolina truly opened up its passing game for the first time in Smith’s career. His 17.6 average per catch also was easily his best since 2008 and Smith seemed to develop a unique relationship with rookie quarterback Cam Newton.

Why he’s No. 8 in 2012: Although he turned 33 in May, there are no signs of Smith slowing down. People like to say Newton rejuvenated Smith’s career and there’s truth in that. But Smith helped jump start Newton’s career. Newton’s a sharp guy and he knows that Smith is the key to this offense. Smith will be at least as much a part of this offense as last year. I’m thinking, with Newton going through an entire offseason program, Smith’s 2012 numbers could be even better.