Well before game time last Sunday, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning knew who would be getting significant playing time in the Panthers’ secondary.
He knew Robert Lester, an undrafted rookie from Alabama, would start at strong safety, and he knew Melvin White, an undrafted rookie from Louisiana-Lafayette, would get plenty of snaps at cornerback.
Last year, Manning and the Giants picked on rookie Josh Norman, so it figured he could target two rookies in a depleted secondary playing in their first NFL game.
“We talked to Eli before the game and made sure he didn’t throw it,” Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott joked about how he minimized the exposure of the young players.
“It’s hard to. And this is the National Football League. It’s hard to say I can hide a guy because eventually they’re going to find you. They knew full well who was going to be out there and our players executed.”
White and Lester have been in the same boat since every team passed over them in April’s seven-round draft and the Panthers signed them in May. They’ve stood out at rookie minicamp, been roommates at training camp and both got an interception last Sunday against New York in Carolina’s 38-0 win.
It was fitting that when White punched the ball out of Louis Murphy’s hands in the fourth quarter, Lester was there to recover the fumble.
“We basically motivate each other,” Lester said. “When he’s having a bad day I’m there to pick him up; when I’m having a bad day he’s there to motivate me. It goes hand in hand. We got each other’s back, along with everyone else in the secondary. With me and him, not only are we talking about football and bonding here, being roommates in the hotel and always hanging out outside of football, we grow closer and it transfers over to the field.”
Often times when a coach or a teammate mentions one, the other is soon to follow in the sentence. That’s because they made a name for themselves on the first day they were on the Panthers’ practice fields together.
Ron Rivera grouped White and Lester together as the two players – outside of first- and second-round picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short – who stood out on the first day of rookie minicamp in May.
The early praise satiated some Panthers fans who felt Carolina wrongly neglected the secondary in the draft. But while the two would continue to impress through spring workouts, training camp would be a dose of reality.
Fighting for their jobs
At Wofford College, the two were paired to be roommates for the three weeks of training camp.
“Ever since Day One and we kind of hit it off feeling that we were in the same situation being undrafted,” White said. “We had the same kind of mission, so we hit it off real cool and came real close.”
The mission was to make the final 53-man roster so they could legitimately say they were Carolina Panthers. But training camp isn’t like rookie camp.
Veterans who have been through camp know they have to fight for their jobs in training camp. If an undrafted rookie impresses the coaches and general manager Dave Gettleman, the team could opt for the younger, cheaper option.
White had an uphill climb. He rarely saw better than third-team snaps with veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn working with the first team and Josh Norman and Josh Thomas working with the second team.
Lester, on the other hand, had an opportunity to be Mike Mitchell’s immediate backup at strong safety while competing against second-year safety D.J. Campbell.
But Lester hit an early rookie wall, showing average speed and rarely making plays on the ball as his stock fell through the summer.
“It was something else I had to get adjusted to, it being my first training camp having high expectations,” Lester said. “I had a good OTAs, I was doing good in the rookie minicamp and it was another obstacle I had to overcome. Not every road is easy. It was a road I struggled with and I had to get my mind right and get back on track, which kind of took me a while.”
By the end of the preseason White had done enough to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, presumably in place of the veteran Florence, and the Panthers liked Lester’s big-play potential in the final two exhibitions to give him a spot on the eight-man practice squad.
With a rash of injuries to the Panthers’ secondary last week, Lester and White got their first opportunity to play in a regular-season game.
Lester got the start at strong safety while White came in at cornerback during nickel packages. They were part of a secondary that held the Giants to 135 passing yards with the help of a strong, consistent rush from the defensive line.
White trapped a Victor Cruz route in the third quarter and picked off Manning, and in the fourth quarter he forced a Louis Murphy fumble in Panthers territory.
Lester’s late fourth-quarter interception capped an NFL debut that saw him get five tackles and one pass defense – and potentially a permanent spot on the roster.
“I was definitely more nervous this Sunday because it was definitely kind of a make or break,” said Lester, comparing his first NFL game to any of the three national title games he played in. “If I go out there and have a bad game or do what I’m supposed to do, I could probably never play in this league again.”
The immediate future of White and Lester is unclear. The Panthers re-signed Florence two weeks ago to combat the secondary injuries, and Thomas (concussion) and defensive back D.J. Moore (knee) are expected to return in Week 5. The status of safety Quintin Mikell’s ankle injury is uncertain.
For the past 4 1/2 months, Lester and White have been by each other’s side, and they’ll continue to be. It reminded Rivera last week of a picture he has with his travel roommate, Jim Morrissey, who also played linebacker for the Bears in the 1980s.
Beneath the picture is written: Teammates last a career, but friends last a lifetime.
“Guys like Melvin and Robert, (Kawann) and Star, guys that come in together can play a long time together and develop a friendship that a lot of people don’t understand. And honestly might not because they don’t go through the same things,” Rivera said.
“This is an opportunity to guys to develop those lasting bonds, and if we can get those kinds of relationships going here on this team, not just one or two guys but 10, 12, 14 guys develop and become our core for the next four, five, six years, who knows what could happen here?”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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