CHARLOTTE – Not long ago, Steve Smith was worried about being able to walk.
Now, Smith is ready to run.
The Panthers wide receiver fully participated in practice Wednesday, less than three weeks after suffering an ankle sprain that had him fearing the worst.
He is expected to return to action when Carolina hosts the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
"I feel like I'm healthy," Smith said. "I'm out of the boot and don't have much pain, so I'm able to move around. I feel good."
Smith felt anything but good moments after he suffered the injury, when he caught a short pass on Oct. 3 at New Orleans and got tackled low and from behind by diving defensive end Will Smith.
"I was afraid that I had re-broke my ankle," said Smith, who missed all but one game in 2004 after suffering a broken left fibula in the opener. "It was the ankle I had torn some ligaments in, the ankle that I got surgically repaired – the ligaments repaired and a plate and screws in there.
"That was one of the concerns, but that came back negative, so that was good."
Still, Smith thought it could be a lengthy road back when he couldn't walk without the aid of a boot in the days following the injury.
"It was just trying to get the ligament to calm down, to get the swelling down so I'd be able to walk," he said. "It took about seven days for it to stop hurting, and then once the swelling went down, I just kept moving forward.
"I think the bye week was a good opportunity for me to rest and get the strength back."
Smith missed the Panthers' last game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 10. Without him, Carolina mustered less than 100 passing yards for the first time in 14 regular season games.
With 13 catches and 174 receiving yards, Smith has accounted for 40.6 percent of the Panthers' receptions by wide receivers and 40.5 percent of the receiving yardage by wide receivers.
"It's nice to have him back," center Ryan Kalil said. "He's a big-time playmaker for us, and it obviously hurts all aspects of our game – including the run – when someone like Steve isn't out there."
Smith also has both of the touchdown receptions by Panthers wide receivers this season, catching one in each of the first two games. Those are the only games previously started by quarterback Matt Moore, who is poised to return to the starting lineup Sunday.
"It's nice having a guy like that," Moore said of Smith. "He's a big-play guy. He just makes things easier."
Smith said he's encouraged by what he's seen from Carolina's recent acquisitions at receiver – veterans David Clowney and Devin Thomas – but that he also likes what he's seen from the team's youngsters.
Despite the roster changes and the change in Smith's health, the bottom line remains unchanged.
"We're 0-5, so there aren't a lot of guys making plays," Smith said. "We've got to change that up, for everybody.
"We have to make plays offensively. We have to move the ball downfield, and we have to capitalize on mistakes when the defense gives us opportunities."