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"I want to be here": Smith-Marsette on staying with Bryce Young, and finding a home

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

CHARLOTTE— The short career of Ihmir Smith-Marsette has been defined by big changes. A young receiver who first entered the league in 2021, each season in the NFL have been spent with a different team. First, the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie, then the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs as a second-year player, and now the Carolina Panthers.

Four teams in three years.

He moves to much to even have a dog, he jokes. But finally, finally, he thinks he's found the right, long term fit. He hopes he's found the right, long term fit anyways.

"I definitely want to be here."

It's a sentiment Smith-Marsette has been happy to share more than once in recent weeks. The Iowa product will be a restricted free agent after the season. So while he's been careful not to bombard the front office with a request during a time of turnover, he hasn't shied away from his desire either. And as soon as the moment allows, he'll officially put voice to his dream.

"I haven't really talked to nobody upstairs. I honestly just been trying to worry about playing right now. And then after the season, let them know how I'm really feeling," Smith-Marsette said this week. "After this next game, I think I'll voice that upstairs. Let them know how I really feel, where I want to be."

And where he wants to be, in case it wasn't clear yet, is with the Panthers. More specifically, he wants to be where Bryce Young is. The rookie quarterback has spent the better part of the season finding chemistry with his entire receiving corps, a feat that takes extreme measures of time and patience. Smith-Marsette has played with other quarterbacks—for that matter, he's played with other No. 1 overall picks, like Justin Fields—but what he's found with Young in recent weeks feels not only special, but sustainable.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Adam Thielen

"I want to be here because first of all the impact Bryce has on the game, the talent you see, the flashes he showed, it's like, you don't really get that a lot of places" Smith-Marsette shared. "So, it's a lot of moving parts with quarterback play and stuff like that. That's the capabilities he has and I just want to be a part of that. I feel like I connect with him on the field. He sees what I see. I see what he sees. And it's just like, we always seem to hit.

"There's so many moving pieces, different players that quarterbacks play with and stuff like that. So I would say it's kind of hard to just instantly come in and connect and then be on the same page all the time. (But) I definitely feel like what we have right now is building and it's only gonna get stronger and I just want to be somebody that he can depend on and be somebody, when he goes out there, he knows, 'I know what I'm gonna get out of Smith-Marsette.'"

When Smith-Marsette first arrived in Charlotte, it was primarily as a punt returner. He's worked in the position all season, even returning a punt 79-yards for a touchdown versus the Chicago Bears. As the season progressed, Smith-Marsette was folded more and more into the offense. He registered his first reception in Week 13, pulled in four the following week, and scored his first touchdown in Week 15.

Maybe it's finding a groove with Young. Maybe it's an offense that either properly used or just needed Smith-Marsette's skill set. Maybe it was timing. Or maybe, it was the short but arduous path Smith-Marsette took to Charlotte was actually what he needed to thrive upon arrival.

"I think sometimes when that happens to a player, he's learning more than what he thinks as he's going through all these trials," interim coach Chris Tabor said of Smith-Marsette's journey through four teams in a short amount of time. "And I think that's maybe what happened for him.

"I know when he had the punt return in Chicago, I know that obviously boosted his confidence. Now we're getting him, he's doing some things on offense and making some plays. He's, as I've always stated, he's a really good football player that's continuing to get better."

This has not been the season Panthers fans or players hoped for. At 2-14, with struggles marring highlights, it'd be understandable if most wanted to put it in the rearview and not look back. But not Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He finally feels comfortable, productive and like he's in a place where those aspects can come together with a quarterback who will ascend to create a thriving connection.

"I just haven't had a place that really wanted me. Being here, it just feels like, now that I'm given the opportunity, it's just like, 'this kid can really play.' I feel like I can stick here," Smith-Marsette mused. "As long as we grow, I feel like, we could grow to be something big. So that's my plan is just stay put here and work it out. We'll figure this thing out. Get this thing on the right track and get going."

And maybe he'll finally get a dog.

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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