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Ron Rivera says Steve Smith 'deserves' to one day retire as a Panther

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Steve Smith didn’t have many kind things to say about coach Ron Rivera when the Carolina Panthers released him after the 2013 season.

But Rivera had plenty of kind things to say about the now-Baltimore Ravens receiver after his season -- and perhaps career -- ended on Sunday with an Achilles injury.

Among them was he’d like to one day see Smith retire as a member of the Panthers, where he is the team’s all-time leading receiver.

“I was very sad to see that," Rivera said of Smith’s injury. “I mean that, too. He’s been such a great player in this league for as long as he has been. I’ve said it before, I wouldn't be surprised if he’s one of the first players from this organization to make the Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know what he's going to decide next year, but whatever it is, just hold on. If he does come back, he’ll be solid again."

One of reasons the Panthers released Smith, 36, was because of his age and the fear that over the course of a long season his production would suffer.

The salary cap and Smith’s sometimes disruptive force in the locker room also played a role.

Smith said he felt like he’d been stabbed in the back after being released.

He said before the season that 2015 would be his last, but the injury increased speculation he may play another year.

Whatever happens, Rivera said Smith has earned the right to retire as a Panther. Players sometimes sign one-day contract with the team they want to be recognized with upon retirement.

“He's deserved it," Rivera said. “He’s earned that opportunity."