During the rain-delayed warmups before Thursday’s exhibition finale against Pittsburgh, Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry was not in uniform.
Cam Newton and a bunch of other veteran players were in street clothes getting the night off, but it seemed unlikely Panthers coach Ron Rivera would do the same for a rookie.
But there was Bradberry, standing near the visitors sideline at Bank of America Stadium, the hood on his rain jacket pulled up. Resting a rookie in the preseason is a bit of a rarity – even for the fourth game when teams sit their stars to guard against injuries.
The Panthers are prepared to do something even more rare this week in the season opener at Denver, where Bradberry and fellow rookie Daryl Worley are expected to be the starting cornerbacks.
According to Stats LLC, only one team since 1991 has started two rookie corners in Week 1 – the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, with Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr.
The Panthers could become the second.
Bradberry, a second-round pick from Samford, already has one spot locked down. Worley, a third-rounder from West Virginia, started all four preseason games.
But Rivera seemed to leave the door cracked Thursday at the spot opposite Bradberry, saying Worley, Bené Benwikere and Robert McClain had all played well at points during the preseason.
The third corner drafted by the Panthers – fifth-rounder Zack Sanchez from Oklahoma – was a surprise cut Saturday morning when teams pared their rosters to 53 players.
Whether he starts against the Broncos or not, Worley said he and the other two rookies are ready.
“We’re young guys, but we have great, experienced guys around us and that instills a lot of confidence in us,” Worley said. “We’re definitely going to try to go out there and do our jobs. But most important, we’re not trying to let those other guys around us down.”
The Norman factor
The rookie corners arrived in Charlotte a week after the Panthers rescinded the franchise tag from Pro Bowl corner Josh Norman.
Good luck doing a Google search on their names and finding articles that don’t include Norman’s.
They get why replacing Norman was a popular preseason storyline, although they’re ready to begin carving out their own NFL identities.
“That was our focus from the beginning,” Worley said. “He’s a great player. He was here before us. We hear stories about him all the time. But at this point now we’ve got to lay a foundation for ourselves and really step in and be able to make plays.”
The Norman comparisons aren’t likely to be quashed anytime soon – particularly for Bradberry. With his long arms and 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, Bradberry has a similar build to Norman and is wearing his old jersey number, 24.
“That’s what it is when you take the guy’s number that just left,” Bradberry said. “He was a great player. A lot of people are looking up to me so I can fill those shoes.”
A humble approach
Bradberry came to Charlotte with the least acclaim among the three rookies after playing four years in the Southern Conference.
Meanwhile, Sanchez (seven) and Worley (six) ranked among the nation’s interceptions leaders last season while playing for traditional football powers.
Yet all showed up with the same humble approach – a far cry from Norman’s earliest days, when he would challenge Steve Smith on the practice field and boast of his four-interception day against Cam Newton during a training camp practice.
“They came in like rookies should come in. They came in eager to learn, eager to earn the respect of their teammates, eager to develop a role on this team,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “And they’ve done all those things. We’re going to ride with them.”
That ride will include some bumps – as fans of the 2008 Chiefs can attest.
Kansas City was in rebuilding mode that year under then-coach Herm Edwards. The Chiefs dealt defensive end Jared Allen to Minnesota in a trade that brought them one first-round and two second-round picks in the ’08 draft.
The Chiefs used three of their 12 picks that year on defensive backs, including corners Flowers (second round) and Carr (fifth). The two started all season for a Chiefs team that went 2-14 and finished with the league’s fifth-worst passing defense.
What they must replace
Norman had one of the best seasons by a defensive back in Panthers history last year. He intercepted four passes, including two he returned for touchdowns, and yielded the lowest passer rating of any cornerback on balls throws his direction, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Norman essentially locking down half the field, the Panthers led the NFL in interceptions (24), takeaways (39) and turnover margin (plus-20).
But ex-NFL receiver and current NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth doesn’t believe the Panthers’ secondary will suffer a setback with Norman gone – largely because of Carolina’s scheme.
“I’ve been watching Ron Rivera’s defenses and (coordinator) Sean McDermott’s defenses for a long time now. The one common factor that I think all of them have is that they make explosive plays out of the secondary,” Collinsworth said. “I don’t think that’s any accident.”
Collinsworth, who will call Thursday’s Panthers-Broncos game in Denver, said McDermott will lull opponents into a false sense of security by having the corners sit back in soft coverage and concede the short routes. And then the Panthers will strike.
“So you may catch three out routes and four hitches and start thinking, boy this is easy. And all of a sudden they put the magic wand out there, and this is the one (play) they’re going to rotate (a safety) over the top,” Collinsworth said.
With the safety help deep, the Panthers’ corners are free to break immediately on the short throw, creating the opportunity for pick-6s.
“So while I think that Josh Norman had an incredible season last year, I certainly don’t want to take away from any of his success,” Collinsworth said. “But I think (the Panthers) believe somebody that they set up in that same way is going to have that same kind of success this season in the secondary.”
An easy start?
The Panthers’ corners will have a bit of a grace period to begin the season. Because of Peyton Manning’s retirement and Colin Kaepernick’s regression, the first two quarterbacks Carolina will face are Trevor Siemian (who has one NFL snap) and former Jaguars bust Blaine Gabbert.
New Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, acquired Saturday in a trade from the Eagles to replace the injured Teddy Bridgewater, will visit Bank of America Stadium in Week 3.
That’s not exactly a murderer’s row
“They’re all professional quarterbacks,” Worley said. “When it comes down to it, we’re going to be studying the receivers, the routes. The quarterback at the end of the day, it seems like that would be our last worry. No matter who it is we’re going against, we’re definitely trying to make plays on the ball.”
As for those former Chiefs’ rookie corners from 2008, both Carr and Flowers have had impressive careers. Carr, now with the Cowboys, hasn’t missed a start in eight seasons and has collected 14 interceptions.
Flowers, in his third season with San Diego, has started 111 games and went to the Pro Bowl in 2013.
But the Panthers’ rookies just want to get through the opener, when Bradberry admits he’ll have a few pre-game jitters before lining up against Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas.
And while the Week 1 distinction is nice, Worley hopes the rookies are still starting in Week 17.
“If we’re doing the right things,” he said, “I wouldn’t see why not.”