Don’t call him small, and don’t call him a slot corner.
Carolina Panthers defensive back Captain Munnerlyn admits he has a bit of a complex about the former, and a desire to disprove the latter.
“I can vibe with anybody, as long as they don’t call me a ‘little man,’” he laughed after Carolina wrapped up an organized team activity (OTA) session this week.
“I got ‘Little Man Syndrome.’ ... Anybody calls me that, and I have to go out there and make a play on them so you won’t call me ‘little’ anymore.”
The Panthers’ most veteran cornerback – who, yes, is 5-foot-9, but don’t you dare remind him – has been competing on the outside during OTAs, and lends some crucial depth to the position most picked-apart by quarterbacks last season.
When Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag offer last spring, it threw the secondary into chaos.
Gettleman and his staff had to “shop hungry” in the draft, then plug the holes with rookie corners – second-rounder James Bradberry and third-rounder Daryl Worley. Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera tasked safety Kurt Coleman, the secondary’s veteran presence, with bringing the rookies up to speed, and slung the two out onto the field once September came around.
They were picked on early and often. Atlanta receiver Julio Jones torched Carolina’s sieve of a secondary for 300 receiving yards on 12 catches in Week 4. Then both Bradberry and Worley missed games with injuries in the first half of the season, forcing Carolina to scramble for reserves.
That trial by fire was ugly. But watching from a distance, Munnerlyn says it made Bradberry and Worley better.
“They had to learn on the fly. I think they can overcome anything (now),” said Munnerlyn. “Being a young guy out there, it’s very tough already. Having a quarterback look at them licking their chops like, ‘Man, this is a rookie we’re going against, I’m going to throw the ball their way all game.’ To see those guys go through that season last year, the growing pains they had to go through ... you can see their games are a whole lot better.”
Carolina was also without a dependable nickel – the spot Munnerlyn vacated when he departed for Minnesota in 2014.
But now, Munnerlyn is back on a four-year deal. And in continued homage to his career-opening seasons with Carolina, he’s not just confined to the role of the team’s starting slot corner in a nickel-happy defense.
As soon as OTAs started in May, Rivera tasked Munnerlyn with rotating in on the outside and immediately lending depth and competition where it didn’t exist last season.
“Captain’s going to compete,” Rivera said. “And it’s just kind of the way we look at things. He’s a veteran guy, he knows how to do things. He’s been in our system before. So we think Captain’s got an opportunity.”
While taller, longer corners are favored on the outside to cover larger receivers, Munnerlyn remains as confident as ever.
“Man, I feel like I still can (play on the outside),” Munnerlyn said. “I did it for a long time here before. And I don’t want to put myself in a box and say ‘I’m just a nickel back.’ No.
“I like competing. That just makes the whole team better.”
Munnerlyn also adds depth and veteran savvy, and competition that will push Bradberry and Worley, who are no longer the only bricks keeping the dam from leaking.
“You definitely see a growth (in them) in Year 2,” Munnerlyn said. “Being a rookie and getting thrown out there in the fire is definitely tough. When I was a rookie I had guys in front of me who really taught me the ropes. Those guys, they didn’t have that. They got thrown in there on Day 1, you know, ‘you gotta be the guy.’”
Carolina got a little taste of what could happen during the season – though they hope it doesn’t – first when Bradberry missed an OTA workout to attend his sister’s graduation, and then this week after Bradberry fractured his wrist after an awkward collision.
Munnerlyn transitioned outside seamlessly.
“(Munnerlyn) can jump out there and just play,” Rivera said.
Carolina is counting on that versatility and depth. When the team drafted Corn Elder – an athletic slot corner from Miami who also competed on the outside – Rivera remarked he saw a lot of Munnerlyn in him on tape.
“Yeah, I saw that coming,” laughed Munnerlyn. “He’s a smaller guy, just like me – you’ll notice I didn’t say ‘little’ – and he likes to compete.”