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Next on Panthers' wish list: A new wide receiver

The Carolina Panthers' quest to find a wide receiver to complement Steve Smith on a long-term basis has lingered so long that even coach John Fox had some light-hearted fun with the issue this week.

"We've been in somewhat of a search over about eight years for that spot," said Fox, who's entering his ninth season with the Panthers.

"We've had some guys roll through that role, and we're still in search."

Actually, the search began six years ago when the Panthers picked Southern Cal's Keary Colbert in the second round of the 2004 draft.

Three years later, after Colbert fizzled, the Panthers again invested a second-round selection in a former Trojans' star, Dwayne Jarrett.

Three years have passed again, with Jarrett producing only one touchdown in limited playing time, and the Panthers are still in the market for wide receiver help.

It's expected to be one of their priorities in next month's draft. They don't have a first-round selection, but could take a receiver in Rounds 2-4.

Interestingly, there's yet another Southern Cal receiver, Damian Williams, who's forecast to go somewhere around where the Panthers have a second-round pick - 48th overall.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay told the Observer on a conference call last week that Williams was a prime candidate, but that he questions whether the Panthers would take a Southern Cal receiver again.

Notre Dame's Golden Tate is another excellent prospect, but might go in the first round.

The position became a problem for Carolina after Muhsin Muhammad left following a Pro Bowl season in '04 to join the Chicago Bears.

Carolina experimented one year with an aging Keyshawn Johnson before eventually bringing Muhammad back in 2008.

After two seasons in his second stint, Muhammad, 36, is a free agent again and it looks doubtful that the Panthers will re-sign him.

Fox was asked by the Observer during a media breakfast for NFC coaches Wednesday in Orlando, Fla., whether Muhammad had played his last game for Carolina.

"As free agency moves forward, it stays fluid," said Fox. "Moose has been great for this organization. I've always appreciated him as a player, as a guy in that locker room.

"It would be hard for me to predict how that's going to turn out."

Muhammad battled a knee injury late last season and had a career-low average of 11.0 yards per catch.

Smith, who turns 31 next month, had perhaps the most frustrating season of his career due to erratic quarterback play and no other receiver to consistently draw defensive attention away from him.

"You'd like to have a threat on both sides," said Fox. "It just opens things up."

Jarrett had the best game of his career in Carolina's season-ending win over New Orleans, catching five passes for 68 yards and his first pro TD. He finished the season with 17 receptions for 196 yards.

However, he was de-activated for three games late in the season and no longer is considered Muhammad's heir apparent.

Fox was noncommittal when asked if Jarrett is the front-runner, at least until a receiver arrives via the draft or free agency.

"It's kind of all hands on deck," said Fox. "We've got some young guys there - Charly Martin, (whom) nobody really knows much about, Kenny Moore, you mentioned Dwayne, and a guy we signed in free agency, Wallace Wright.

"Those players will answer that as we move forward and starting working in OTAs, minicamps and practice."

That was hardly an endorsement for Jarrett.

Wright, formerly of the New York Jets, was signed mostly to play special teams. The Panthers picked up Moore off Detroit's practice squad in 2008 and signed Martin last year after the Chargers cut him.

Smith also didn't seem to be counting on Jarrett earlier this week when he identified the second receiver position as one of the team's obvious areas of need, saying "We don't have a guy we're considering for Moose's spot."

So where do the Panthers turn next?

The list of available unrestricted free agents includes mostly 30 & over players past their primes, though former Buffalo receiver Josh Reed, 29, is a possibility.

However, the draft should afford the Panthers numerous promising options, especially in the second and third rounds.

Perhaps the third time will be their charm.