SPARTANBURG When new Panthers safety Mike Mitchell met Cam Newton, the quarterback reminded Mitchell about his hit from the Panthers-Raiders game last season that resulted in Newton getting flagged and fined.
“He said, ‘Hey man, you’re that guy who got me fined 10 grand,’ ” Mitchell said. “Hopefully, I can make some plays, get us in the playoffs and he’ll make his money back.”
During his first practices with the Panthers, a couple of Mitchell’s plays have come at Newton’s expense.
Mitchell twice has intercepted Newton, returning one for a touchdown during a practice this past weekend. In addition to picking off Newton again Monday, Mitchell delivered a helmet-jarring hit on Joe Adams that caught the attention of the crowd at Wofford.
In the process Mitchell has grabbed the early lead at strong safety, one of several position battles in the secondary.
Mitchell, a backup for four seasons in Oakland, came to Carolina as a free agent during the offseason for a chance to be a starter. He expects the job to be his.
“No doubt about it,” Mitchell said after a post-practice weightlifting session. “I wouldn’t have come here – that was the reason I left.”
The Panthers tried this same formula last year: signing another team’s backup safety in the hopes of making him a starter. It did not end well.
Haruki Nakamura’s struggles and eventual benching, coupled with Sherrod Martin’s knee injury, resulted in Charles Godfrey’s move to free safety and created an opening at strong safety.
Enter Mitchell, who is competing with second-year pro D.J. Campbell and undrafted free agent Robert Lester.
If the Panthers decide they need to beef up the competition, they could go after free-agent safety Quintin Mikell, who talked with Carolina this month.
In the Panthers’ scheme the strong safety plays close to the line of scrimmage, where he’s asked to take on blockers, help in run support and blitz on occasion.
Those responsibilities play to Mitchell’s strong suit.
“We always felt his strengths would be once we got into pads. He’s done well, as has D.J. Campbell,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
“That was one of the strengths (Mitchell) has, coming off the edge or coming up the gut. And he also was a very good four-phase special teams player for (Oakland),” Rivera added. “So we feel we upgraded our depth at that position for sure.”
Mitchell, the Raiders’ second-round pick in 2009 out of Ohio, could not unseat Tyvon Branch as the starter in Oakland. In the past three seasons, Mitchell averaged 43 tackles despite limited playing time. But he has only two career interceptions.
To improve his coverage skills, Mitchell went to Phoenix during the offseason to train with Will Sullivan, an independent defensive backs coach who has worked with Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Mitchell’s ball skills were on display Monday when he broke on a Newton pass and stretched out in front of tight end Greg Olsen for the pick. Mitchell credited the pass rush for forcing the issue.
“Our D-line is just nasty. I’ve never played with a front like this before,” Mitchell said. “Cam’s a great quarterback. But when they’re getting pressure in his face like that, and he can’t step into a throw, if he throws it behind a guy I’ve just got to go catch it.”
Mitchell, 6-feet and 200 pounds, showed off his physical side later in practice. After Adams caught a short pass and was forced to the inside of the field by a corner, Mitchell came up and met him.
It was not anything close to the Jadeveon Clowney hit, but it knocked Adams’ helmet off just the same.
“I don’t even know how his helmet came off because I wasn’t trying to do all that,” Mitchell said. “Maybe his helmet was too loose.”
As for his take-down of Newton last season, Mitchell went with the “no harm, no foul” defense.
After Newton released the ball, he said Mitchell hit him late and “drove me into the ground.” After popping up off the ground, Newton yelled at and bumped referee Jerome Boger, who penalized Newton for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“It was not late. It was a perfect good play,” Mitchell said. “I play football right on the edge. I try not to go over the edge. It was one of those borderline plays. But the fact that they didn’t throw a flag, hey, it was legal.”
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