ORLANDO, Fla. -- John Fox was the head coach of the Carolina Panthers for nine of wide receiver Steve Smith's first 10 NFL seasons. He was there when Smith was charged for assault after attacking teammate Anthony Bright during a 2002 film-room meeting. He there when Smith was given a two-game suspension in 2008 for breaking the nose of teammate Ken Lucas during a training camp fight.
So Fox is qualified, at least for the time he was at Carolina, to judge whether Smith was considered a locker room distraction -- one of the reasons that has been cited for his release two weeks ago.
"That's not the right word,'' the third-year Denver Broncos coach said during Monday's first day of the NFL owners meetings. "We evaluate a guy on his ability to play football, and he was one our top players the entire time I was there.''
No doubt. Smith, who signed with Baltimore 24 hours after his release, is Carolina's all-time leading receiver. His most productive seasons came under Fox. It wouldn't surprise if one day his number was retired and he was placed on the team's Hall of Honor.
To be fair, Fox can only talk about the player he coached. He wasn't there the past three seasons, so he can't judge whether Smith was a distraction for the current team.
But veteran players are released every year, and this one didn't surprise the coach that led Carolina to its only Super Bowl in 2003. He said it was no different than Denver's decision to release 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey before a $1 million roster bonus came due on March 15.
It was different, though. Cutting Bailey saved the Broncos $10 million in salary cap space. The Panthers basically are paying Smith $5 million to play for Baltimore, and are saving only $2 million under the cap.
Again, Fox can't speak to that.
"I just know he was an extremely productive and competitive player when I was there,'' he said.
The Panthers were not awarded compensatory picks for the 2014 draft. But look for them to get a few in 2015 after losing wide receivers Brandon LaFell (Patriots), Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Bears), safety Mike Mitchell (Steelers), cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Vikings) and a few others to free agency this year.
Carolina cornerback Melvin White, an undrafted rookie who became a starter, ranked fifth on the league's performance-based pay list this season with an additional $269,714 in salary. The performance-based pay system compensates players whose level of playing time was higher than their salary would have paid.