CHARLOTTE – As expected, wide receiver Steve Smith (knee), running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) returned to practice on Wednesday, and all three expect to play against the 49ers on Sunday.
"Guys that play a big part in making this team go – seeing them out there in cleats, practicing and sweating with us – that's great to see," quarterback Cam Newton said.
Smith and Cole were limited in Wednesday's practice. For Smith, the final step in his recovery process requires him to trust his knee.
"It is more of a mental thing than physical, and that's the part I have to get over – the mental aspect of it," Smith said. "Physically, I am fine. Every day I get better."
Stewart – who missed the first seven games and last three games of the regular season – was a full participant.
"It felt good. Getting back in the groove – again," Stewart said with a laugh. "When you invest so much time, of course you just want to be back and be around the game. Just the fact that I made it to this point – I'm very fortunate. The team winning the Atlanta game really helped me out with the bye week."
SMITH'S IMPACT: Smith's importance as the Panthers' No. 1 wide receiver is undeniable. Not only is Carolina's all-time leading receiver a dependable target, but he changes the dynamic for the other receivers when he's on the field.
"He really sets the coverages for us," tight end Greg Olsen said. "When Steve is out there he sets a lot of where things roll, and that kind of dictates the looks people get on the other side.
"He's our main guy. It's no secret. That's just the way it is. Hopefully come Sunday he's the Steve that we all know."
FAN FRIDAY: Friday, January 10 has been declared "FAN Friday" by City of Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon.
Residents and businesses are encouraged to show their Panthers pride by wearing team colors or simply all black in support of the Panthers. Additionally, Panthers-themed signage will be displayed throughout uptown Charlotte on bus shelters, over street banners, news racks, city buses and light rail cars. Fans can share photos of themselves wearing the team's colors via social media by uploading an image with the #BlackFriday hashtag to Panthers.com, Twitter or Instagram. The gallery will be featured on both Panthers.com and the team's official Facebook page.