SPARTANBURG Jerricho Cotchery has experience being the most experienced guy in the room.
He has embraced being the “old guy,” and he’s even comfortable with it. But being a locker room guy is not all the 11th-year wide receiver has to offer.
“I want to be known as a guy who can help individuals, not just on the field but off the field as well. That’s fine with me,” Cotchery, 32, said Saturday at Wofford College. “But obviously that doesn’t get you anywhere in the NFL. Teams don’t bring you in to be counselors. They want you to come in and contribute and make plays and help the team win.”
Cotchery comes to Wofford College for Panthers training camp with a hold on first-team reps. The most veteran member of an all-new Panthers’ receiving corps, Cotchery will be tasked with being a mentor in the locker room and a dependable pass-catcher on the field.
But this isn’t the first time Cotchery has dealt with upheaval in a receivers group and questions about the strength of the team entering camp.
Before the 2009 season, the Jets released Laveranues Coles and left Cotchery, then 27, as the leader of the receivers. He caught 57 passes for 821 yards and three touchdowns that season as the Jets went to the AFC Championship Game. The next closest receiver, Braylon Edwards, had 541 receiving yards.
“I was the guy who was looked at to lead the room,” Cotchery said. “At the end of the day it’s about making plays. You’re not going to magically take care of the situation. It’s about the work you put in every day. I think the guys have that approach, and I just try to do what I’ve been doing over the course of my career – just work hard.”
Along with Cotchery, veteran Jason Avant will also be looked at to help the younger receivers. Those two and first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin are the only locks at that position to make the team, which could retain as many as six receivers on the 53-man roster.
Several Panthers, including tight end Greg Olsen and quarterback Cam Newton, have voiced frustration with all the offseason questions about the receiving group. Carolina is without its top four receivers from last year, most notably all-time leading receiver Steve Smith.
But Cotchery, an old head, gets why people have questions.
“I mean, to be understanding, you had four guys leave,” Cotchery said. “You had probably the best player to play in the organization leave. So those questions are going to naturally come up. I understand it from that viewpoint. You don’t know much about the guys coming in. I’m understanding. I don’t take any of those things to heart. I just know we have a good, hard-working group and let everything play out.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Cotchery might not be as dynamic as Smith but is still a good route runner and pass catcher.
But one major factor that led to Smith’s unceremonious departure from the Panthers was a worry about his relationship with younger players and if he would be able to allow Carolina’s young stars to lead. Still, the team needed to replace the experience on the roster.
“When you lose a veteran player, you have to replace him with a veteran player,” Rivera said. “It’s going to be hard to replace him, but I think we’re going to be able to do it.”
Cotchery spent the past three seasons in Pittsburgh with the Steelers, and in 2013 he caught 46 passes for 602 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. Carolina signed Cotchery to a two-year, $5 million contract with the hope that he can replicate that production from a year ago.
But Cotchery, a former N.C. State standout, knows what it takes to win. He went to two AFC Championship Games with the Jets, and he got an idea of how a championship team carries itself after three years with the six-time Super Bowl champion Steelers.
“Being back in the Carolinas, I want to be a part of bringing that first Super Bowl here,” Cotchery said. “Coming from Pittsburgh where those guys know how to get it done over there, you got to see how they operated in a sense, how they approached every day with the mindset of winning a championship.
“And now I feel like even though I didn’t win one there, I kind of get it. I got close in New York, but we never got over the hump. I have seen what their approach was and hopefully I can help this team accomplish that goal.”
At Fan Fest on Friday night, Cotchery ran a seam route but couldn’t make the catch on a bullet from Newton. Cotchery likely would have been able to jog into the end zone had he held onto it.
He throttled down for fear of being too far downfield for Newton to make the pass, but Newton threw the ball where he expected Cotchery to be had he kept his speed.
“From my point it’s just understanding where he wants to throw the ball on that particular play and what I was thinking on that particular play,” Cotchery said. “It’s just communicating. It’s OK. I’ll still get it done.”
After an afternoon of meetings before Saturday night’s practice, Cotchery asked Newton about the play, and it turned out Cotchery was right.
Now he knows Newton can make that throw, and Cotchery promised that wouldn’t happen again.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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