Carolina Panthers

After trip ‘to hell and back,’ can 2017 be different for Panthers’ Worley, Bradberry?

Carolina Panthers cornerbacks James Bradberry, left and Daryl Worley, right, run through a drill at practice.
Carolina Panthers cornerbacks James Bradberry, left and Daryl Worley, right, run through a drill at practice.

Second-year cornerback James Bradberry has this whole “NFL thing” figured out so well now, he could play with one hand tied behind his back.

That actually was Bradberry’s new challenge earlier this month at Carolina Panthers minicamp. A thick black cast covered his left hand after a freak collision with linebacker Luke Kuechly fractured Bradberry’s wrist during the last week of organized team activities.

Bradberry still dazzled in the final days of minicamp, though, with tight coverage on the team’s most talented receivers and several one-handed pass breakups as well as an interception.

In fact, the only thing about that cast that slowed Bradberry down a little was getting fellow second-year corner Daryl Worley to add his name to the packed cluster of silver-Sharpied signatures from teammates that covered the cast.

Worley cracked that he wasn’t going to sign it (he eventually did) while also outing his seemingly quiet teammate as one of the better trash-talkers on the team.

“Me and (Bradberry) are not friends,” he joked. “I’m sick of him right now. ... He has a slick mouth. He always says something mean to us. ... No, he’s not quiet. He talks all day, every day. He just whispers it so no one hears it unless he’s talking to you.”

“I just try to motivate him any way I can,” Bradberry winked.

Even though Worley was just having a little fun at Bradberry’s expense, it’d be understandable if the two wanted a little separation during the Panthers’ break this month.

After general manager Dave Gettleman was forced to “shop hungry” for cornerbacks in the 2016 NFL draft following the ungraceful exit of former starter Josh Norman, the two have been lumped together since they first arrived in Charlotte last spring, drafted just a round apart. Their lockers sit next to each other in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium (and next to the watchful eye of the “dad” of the secondary, safety Kurt Coleman). They’re almost always asked about each other in interviews – guilty party included.

When the two made mistakes – and they made many at the beginning of last season – they were always at 100 miles per hour. There was hardly time to dwell before a new lesson came their way. Both could feel opposing quarterbacks licking their chops at the idea of keying in on two rookies.

“It was a whirlwind last year,” Worley said. “Everything was spinning, just trying to do everything all at once. Trying not to mess up.”

Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn watched the two from Minnesota last season, and called what the then-rookies experienced a “trial by fire.”

We’ve been to hell and back at this point.

Panthers second-year corner Daryl Worley

“We’ve been to hell and back at this point,” Worley said. “I feel like there’s nothing we haven’t faced. So we should be able to prepare and shake off anything that may happen, and get ready for the next play.”

“It’s the second year. Things are definitely starting to slow down.”

Worley, a hyper-critical self-scout, was annoyed with watching himself at times on film. Where he showed promise in run defense last season, he was at times wobbly in coverage. That won’t be the case in 2017, he said – and he backed up that promise with a visible increase in physicality as the 2016 season ended and spring ball and minicamp progressed.

“I just feel like I was being a little bit hesitant,” he said. “That really wasn’t my game. Just coming from college, I was the guy that made plays on the ball. Going back over last year’s tape, I saw myself be a little hesitant on plays where I could have made plays on the ball and I settled for pass breakups instead of interceptions sometimes.”

Bradberry finished the year as Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked rookie corner, No. 20 overall. While he excelled especially in coverage while constantly being matched against opponents’ top receivers, he said route-recognition was where he strived to improve last season.

“Last year, I was a little confused (during minicamp),” he said. “Things were happening so fast. Now I’m able to read the offense a little bit more. I’m familiar with the defense and I’m able to play a lot faster.”

They’ll need to use all the lessons they’ve learned to this point once September comes around. They’ll face some of the best receivers in the NFL in the ultra-competitive, pass-happy NFC South again – the very same teams that took both rookies for a ride last fall.

Worley’s itching with anticipation at the idea of a few rematches.

“Everyone,” he said, when asked who in particular he’s looking forward to facing off against in 2017.

“(I want to show) everyone in the NFL that not only myself, but the Panthers defense is at another level this year.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue