A week after the Carolina Panthers secondary took a hit when Bashaud Breeland failed his physical, general manager Marty Hurney started patching it back together Friday by adding a pair of veteran defensive backs on two-year contracts.
Unrestricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell, a former Duke and Charlotte Latin standout, and ex-UNC safety Da’Norris Searcy were teammates for one season in Buffalo in 2014.
They reunited Thursday evening at the Charlotte airport, beginning with a little Duke-UNC trash talk.
“There’s been plenty of it already,” Cockrell said during a conference call with both players.
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“It started last night when we were both picked up from the airport,” Searcy added, laughing.
Cockrell’s deal is worth $6.8 million, his agents tweeted Friday.
Cockrell, a fourth-round pick by Buffalo in 2014, pulled down a career-best three interceptions last season with the Giants. He started nine games in New York, posting 37 tackles and 11 pass breakups.
A high school teammate of Panthers free agent wideout Brenton Bersin, Cockrell, 26, started 16 games with the Steelers in 2016 and finished with a career-high 13 pass breakups.
He will compete for the starting spot opposite James Bradberry after Hurney traded third-year corner Daryl Worley to Philadelphia for wideout Torrey Smith two weeks ago.
“He’s a good-sized corner that can really play both zone and man coverage,” Hurney said of the 6-foot, 191-pound Cockrell. “And he’s a physical corner versus the run, also. He’s a guy that comes in and competes for play time.”
Breeland was the first choice to replace Worley, but his three-year agreement was voided when the former Clemson corner failed his physical because of a foot injury that will require a skin graft.
Cockrell admitted he doesn’t know much about Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington’s scheme yet, but knows “there’s a lot of guys here that run and tackle very well.”
Cockrell said he wants to add a playmaking element to the defense.
“I come in here ready to play and ready to make plays on the ball,” he said. “That’s what I’m all about and that’s what I will continue to do.”
Searcy, 29, was released by Tennessee this month after losing his starting spot last season to Johnathan Cyprien. The Panthers needed a safety who is good in run support after cutting Kurt Coleman, and there was speculation they might turn to Tre Boston, the ex-UNC defensive back who played in Charlotte for three seasons.
Instead, they found Searcy, Buffalo’s fourth-round pick in 2011 when spent the past three seasons with the Titans.
“He’s a physical safety that probably plays more in the box as a strong safety,” Hurney told the Observer. “But he certainly has the ability to play the post and to play the middle of the field. So he brings some versatility to us, as well.”
Searcy joins veteran free safety Mike Adams in the back end of the Panthers’ secondary. But with Adams turning 37 on Saturday, Carolina likely will still look to get younger at the position through next month’s draft.
Searcy was a starter his first two seasons in Nashville, but became more of a role player in 2017 after Tennessee acquired Cyprien in free agency.
Searcy played in all 16 regular-season games, starting six while Cyprien was hurt. The 5-11, 207-pound Searcy collected 23 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups.
“Situations change,” Searcy said. “I took it on the chin. I still helped the team and played excellent whenever I was in there, made plays whenever I was presented plays.
“But I still see myself as a starter. I will come into this situation competing and carry myself as a starter like always, and we’ll just let the chips fall where they may.”
Searcy, a native of Decatur, Ga., has played in 107 of a possible 112 games during his seven-year career. He has eight career interceptions, including three in 2014 during his final year in Buffalo.
Searcy has 232 career tackles and 4.5 sacks, with three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
While Searcy and Cockrell share a Tobacco Road rivalry, Cockrell is returning to a city where he grew up and where his parents still live. Cockrell also was a state-champion sprinter at Latin and remembers when the Panthers’ home was known as Ericsson Stadium.
But he said he’s most excited about joining a successful organization.
“I’m coming to a good team. We’re not too far removed from a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl run,” Cockrell said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to most, is getting back to that level.”