Team, Smith may begin negotiations within week

Negotiations between the Carolina Panthers and Steve Smith, aimed at extending the contract of the emerging star wide receiver before the NFL's free agent period, will commence soon, possibly as early as this week.

The most explosive playmaker on the NFC champions' roster, Smith is eligible to become a restricted free agent in less than two months. He said during Super Bowl week that he preferred to continue his career with the Panthers and his agent, Derrick Fox, echoed that sentiment in discussions with ESPN.com.

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney also indicated he would be proactive in trying to get Smith signed to a new deal.

"We don't want to come up to the deadline (in March) and still be in discussions," said Fox. "Steve has made a commitment to the area, just recently upgraded in terms of his home, and he loves the community. We're ready to get going. We have a framework and we can sit down with Marty as soon as he is ready."

The framework to which Fox alluded is likely to be the five-year contract extension that Cincinnati Bengals three-year veteran wideout Chad Johnson signed during the regular season. That deal included a $7 million signing bonus, a second-tier option bonus of $3.5 million and, and was worth $26 million in so-called "new money."

Fox acknowledged that the Johnson deal probably raised the ante for his client, also a three-year veteran, and that it was a contract he and Smith have carefully scrutinized in the nearly three months since it was consummated. A third-round choice in the '01 draft, Smith just completed the final season of his original three-year, $1.404 million contract with the Panthers.

Smith, 24, has matured on the field and, just as important, off it as well. He has become the big-play receiver in a Carolina offense that was more wide open in the second half of the 2003 season. The former Utah star posted career bests in receptions (88), receiving yards (1,110) and touchdown catches (seven).

Smith returned 44 punts for an average of 10.0 yards per carry and averaged 28.1 yards on 11 kickoff returns.

If the Panthers cannot reach a long-term agreement with Smith, they can retain a right of first refusal by making him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. The downside to such a scenario is that the once-untapped restricted market has become increasingly active over the last two springs.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.