Cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley arrived at Carolina Panthers training camp last season as rookies, but they never sat on the bench or watched like some other first-year players.
Instead they were asked to perform from Day 1, regularly being pitted against some of the best receivers in the NFL.
The results were mixed, but encouraging. Bradberry finished the year as the 20th-ranked cornerback according to the football analytics site Pro Football Focus, and Worley had nine pass breakups, just one fewer than his counterpart.
Still, there were growing pains. None were more obvious than in Week 4 against Atlanta and then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s aerial attack. Shanahan fed the ball to the Falcons receiver Julio Jones over and over again – at Bradberry and Worley’s expense. Jones finished with 12 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown.
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“I was matched up against Julio, so I knew the ball was gonna come anyway,” Bradberry said. “They were just trying to get the ball to their best player.”
It was no indication of Bradberry or Worley’s talent or pedigree that Shanahan went after them that day. Rather, young players have to prove their worth before coaches will start avoiding them.
“When the offensive coordinator sees two young corners, no matter whether it was us or across the league,” Worley said, “they know you have limited experience and they’re gonna take the shots with you, which they did last year.
“We’ll be better coming into this year.”
It’s a good attitude in the opening week matchup with San Francisco. The 49ers hired Shanahan as their head coach this offseason. The personnel will be different – no Jones streaking the field, no MVP in Matt Ryan slinging passes – but will Shanahan do anything else differently?
“Honestly it’s just the personnel,” Worley said. “You’re not really scheming a guy, you’re scheming the things they might be doing no matter who’s plugged in there.”
Shanahan’s newest weapon is Pierre Garçon, a 6-foot, 210-pound veteran receiver. Garçon first starred with Peyton Manning back in Indianapolis before heading to Washington with Kirk Cousins. Last year, he had over 1,000 receiving yards for a team that barely missed the playoffs.
In other words, he’s no Julio Jones, but he’s more than capable in his own right. Now it’s a question of whether Shanahan’s offense can set him free or not.
“I’m expecting a dogfight because I know he’s a tough competitor,” Bradberry said. “I’m ready.”