More than anything Sunday, it was important to Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback James Bradberry to clean up his own mess.
Bradberry looked the part of a guy making just his second NFL start in the second quarter. He misread the San Francisco 49ers’ formation, got distracted by another receiver, and allowed wide receiver Torrey Smith to race past him for a 28-yard touchdown catch.
Bradberry wanted to prove something to himself and his teammates. That happened in the fourth quarter, when he picked off 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Bradberry returned the interception 16 yards before Smith tackled him, and that turnover sealed the Panthers’ 46-27 victory.
“I gave up that touchdown early, so getting that interception was huge for my confidence,” said Bradberry, who the Panthers drafted out of Samford in the second round. “Nothing has come easy. It’s been difficult for me to continuously learn the playbook and make sure I’m doing my job at all times.
“When I gave up that touchdown, I had my eyes in the wrong place.”
Bradberry and fellow rookie cornerback Daryl Worley (a third-round draft pick out of West Virginia) are the Panthers’ future at that position. General manager Dave Gettleman made a bold gamble when he rescinded the franchise tag on veteran cornerback Josh Norman, then made those two draft selections.
Sunday, on balance, demonstrated progress. Worley got to play some cornerback against the 49ers after his participation in the opener against the Denver Broncos was limited to special teams.
Worley has taken to the special-teams duties. He made a big solo tackle on a Quinton Patton kickoff return. Later in the game Worley downed an Andy Lee punt 2 yards from the end zone, helping to set up a 39-yard Graham Gano field goal late in the first half.
Worley was never a gunner – the players on the outside of the punt formation, tasked with chasing down the returner or downing the punt – before becoming a Panther. But he obviously has a knack for the job.
“I talked to our special teams coach and he told me young corners coming into the league, that’s where they start,” Worley said. “And when they’re striving on special teams, that’s when the defensive plays will come.
“I’d never played gunner in my life. But it’s kind of like playing receiver – don’t let the guy block you and get down there and make a play. By the end of the play, you’ve turned back into a DB.”
Worley also split time at right cornerback with Bené Benwikere. He was credited with four solo tackles, an assist and a pass breakup.
“We were preparing all week. Definitely, (the coaches) were telling me there was a chance I’d play” cornerback Sunday, Worley said. “So it was really important I prepared myself, making every (practice) rep count.”
Perhaps the biggest thing these two rookies have to do is win trust of veteran defensive teammates. It was clear in the post-game locker room they left the right impression Sunday.
“They are growing up every week. We believe in them,” said linebacker Thomas Davis. “We know what they are capable of. Just allowing them to go out and play. They are doing a good job with it.”
Safety Kurt Coleman said the next step for these two is coming to realize just how good they can be by NFL standards.
“James is really coming. He doesn’t really get yet just how good he can be,” Coleman said of Bradberry. “I love it. I really want to push him and push him because the sky is the limit for him.
“And I think it’s great that Worley understands he still has a role on special teams” as he’s worked into the defense. “But it’s also important when he plays defense that he knows he can make a play. I think he had one or two pass breakups.
“To get this kind of experience, against a team playing at such a fast tempo, has to make them better players.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell