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Cornerback Josh Thomas brings physicality to Panthers defensive backfield

Josh Thomas spent nearly a half hour after practice Monday putting in some extra work.

For 15 minutes, he stood with his back to a coach, arms pumping as he anticipated the ball coming over his shoulder and plucking it out of the air for an interception.

Then he went to his knees, and for 15 more minutes he kept his arms pumping up and down, waiting for the ball to appear in the sky from different angles.

The third-year cornerback finished second on the Panthers with seven pass defenses last season, and he only started in four games. But even though he got his hands on seven balls, he wasn’t able to haul one in for an interception.

“It’s about turnovers,” said Thomas, who’s battling to regain his starting cornerback role from late last year. “A lot of times it was deflections last year. This year I want to force turnovers and capitalize on me getting my hands on the ball. I want to get the ball back to Cam (Newton) and our offense to score.”

Thomas did just that Thursday against Philadelphia. The fast-tempo Eagles marched 87 yards in less than six minutes against a Panthers defense that looked gassed despite it being their first series. On a second-and-3 from the Carolina 8-yard line, Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles finally felt pressure from the Panthers defensive line as Greg Hardy got his hand around Foles’ waist.

Foles’ attempt to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone floated, and Thomas came off receiver DeSean Jackson, changed direction and leaped for the ball while getting two feet in bounds. The play stymied an otherwise solid series for the Eagles and kept the game scoreless early.

Thomas got the start at right cornerback and was matched with Jackson, the Eagles’ top receiver, for most of the first half. Jackson finished with two catches for 28 yards while being targetted four times.

“Just by me attacking the ball rather than me waiting for it or attacking the receiver, I’m really trying to teach myself to get a nose for the ball this year instead of letting it come by habit,” Thomas said.

Thomas started the final four games for the Panthers in 2012 when Ron Rivera and his staff gave younger players an opportunity at quality playing time with the Panthers out of the playoff hunt. He totaled 11 tackles and had four pass defenses.

Rivera said he’s liked the physicality of Thomas’ preseason play, and he indicated the cornerback positions haven’t yet been settled. But Thomas has work to do if he wants to pick up where he left off last year. Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence have got the majority of first-team reps at the cornerback spots since the first week of training camp. When Munnerlyn played nickel Thursday, Thomas started at cornerback, but second-year corner Josh Norman is also challenging for the spot.

Norman leads the NFL preseason with three interceptions, and his stock continues to rebound after he lost his starting job as a rookie two-thirds of the way through last season.

“I think having that extra guy on the practice field keeps the pressure on everyone else,” Rivera said. “We’re not going to make a decision until we finish up. There’s a lot of competition. This will be a big week for everybody because we’re going to play those guys as far as we have to and as far as we’re comfortable with into the second half.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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