Carolina Panthers

Last man standing from Panthers' 'shop-hungry' draft knows what must happen next

James Bradberry is in lonely territory.

He is the last man standing of three cornerbacks drafted by former Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman in 2016. Gettleman infamously said he had to "shop hungry" that spring after Gettleman allowed star cornerback Josh Norman to walk after rescinding his franchise tag offer.

Bradberry is all that is left after counterpart Daryl Worley was traded this spring and Zack Sanchez was waived.

He's also the only Panthers cornerback — and their only starting defensive back — who has been on the roster for each of the past two seasons.

"We haven't had the same starting secondary ever, since I've been here," coach Ron Rivera, entering his eighth season in Charlotte, said. "We have got to find some continuity at the position."

The Panthers made an investment in Bradberry, a former Samford star, because they liked his length, physicality and football IQ.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry reaches out to catch a ball during practice on Thursday. Bradberry is the only cornerback who has been on the Panthers roster for each of the last two years, and the only starting defensive back who has remained over that time. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Though he has developed, Bradberry admitted last season wasn't his best, and that he needs to show more consistency.

"It was up and down. Some games I felt like it was the best I've played here," he said. "And other games, it was like, 'uhhh.' Just inconsistent. Good plays here, bad plays there. So that's my goal for next year, is to just be that great cornerback each and every game."

Under new defensive coordinator Eric Washington, Bradberry might be able to hit his stride. Washington wants to play more man coverage, in which Bradberry says he excels.

"In college, that's what we pretty much ran," he said. "Either everything was man, or we always converted (other looks) back to man. So I'm excited about it.

"I get to go up there and play bump-and-run, that's pretty much my go-to because I'm a big, physical corner. I can get my hands on guys and slow them down, get them off their route and their point of reference at the top of the route."

Still finding the other pieces

The other players Carolina has brought into the secondary are diverse and, at times, atypical for their position.

Corner Kevon Seymour has good size and can play nickel and on the outside. Corner Lorenzo Doss is slight and more of a ball-hawk. Corner Ross Cockrell has the same smarts as Bradberry, but with a smaller frame. Rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden is the forklift of the middle, with a lack of explosive speed but the ability to move bodies where they need to be. Veteran safety Mike Adams is the old head in the last year of his contract and the wily decision-maker, while his counterpart, Da'Norris Searcy, is a shifty roamer.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry, left, talks with quarterback Cam Newton, right, during stretching at practice on Thursday, June 14, 2018. Bradberry said he wants to step up as a leader and become more consistent this season. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

And the Panthers drafted lightning-fast cornerback Donte Jackson out of LSU in the second round this spring, and are encouraging him to battle for the starting outside spot opposite Bradberry.

Jackson's 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame makes him smaller than a prototypical outside cornerback.

And that is the point. Just as the Panthers set about building a complementary receivers room, so too have they done for the secondary.

"If you look at the teams we play in our division ... each big receiver is complemented by a small, fast receiver on the other side," Bradberry said. "You know, like (Tampa Bay's) DeSean Jackson, (New Orleans') Ted Ginn Jr., Atlanta has (rookie) Calvin Ridley now.

"You have to have a fast guy to complement the bigger guys. That's why we got Donte, because he can run with Ted and all those guys."

'All eyes are on me'

Throughout organized team activities and minicamp, Rivera rearranged defensive back combinations to test information retention and compatibility, and to find ideal matchups.

But Bradberry's main role stays the same: Lock down the opposing No. 1 receiver. Julio Jones. Mike Evans. Michael Thomas.

Everything around him might continue to change. But Bradberry must lean into lonely territory, and learn to be his own island.

"I'm looking forward to becoming a leader (this year)," he said. "And pretty much all eyes are on me on the back end. I'm going to try to live up to the hype."

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