When Panthers coaches lost track of the defensive back rotation against Buffalo on Thursday, it meant nickel back Captain Munnerlyn was in for only five snaps — fewest of any of the team’s defensive players.
Had the mix-up happened last year, Munnerlyn would have griped to head coach Ron Rivera — and the media — about his playing time.
But it’s a different Munnerlyn who showed up for training camp this summer, one who is both lighter in body and lighter in spirit.
Gone is the brooding player who vented publicly last year as he lost reps to linebacker Shaq Thompson in a “big nickel” package. Gone, too, are the 16 pounds Munnerlyn shed working out with Packers stars Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews in Los Angeles during the offseason.
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“I feel like I’m young again. I feel a lot quicker, feel like I can move better,” said the 5-9, 192-pound Munnerlyn, who played at 208 pounds last year. “And it was just getting myself going. That’s what I had to do.”
‘I did a lot of complaining’
Munnerlyn was an outgoing, personable player during his first stint with Carolina from 2009-2013. That’s what the Panthers thought they were getting when they brought him back on a four-year, $17.5 million contract in 2017 after he played three years in Minnesota.
They also thought they were getting a quick nickel who could capably cover slot receivers and help in run support.
But as then-defensive coordinator Steve Wilks relied more on Thompson at nickel, Munnerlyn saw his playing time slip.
He ended up playing 45 percent of the defensive snaps, by far a career low. And when he did play, he wasn’t always effective.
Nor was he happy.
“Last year I did a lot of complaining about not playing, saying: ‘They brought me in for a reason. To play,’” Munnerlyn said after Sunday’s practice. “Not to talk about the money they gave me last year, but I got paid pretty well to come in and play the nickel position. And I didn’t play it that much.
“I was very frustrated — and I talked about it. I spoke out about it, and that’s not even me. I’m a guy who, when they do stuff like that, I just play and grind and let it fall in place for me. And I didn’t do that last year.”
A better place
Munnerlyn’s frustrations boiled over in December when he walked out of a practice. Rivera disciplined Munnerlyn by making him inactive against Green Bay that week.
Rivera agrees that Munnerlyn is in a better place this year.
“He’s been great. He’s a very mature, professional football player,” Rivera said. “Because of it, he came back ready to roll, and he’s going to show us. And I hope he does, because that means we’re having some good luck with him.”
Munnerlyn had a terrific practice Saturday at Wofford, intercepting Garrett Gilbert in the end zone and batting down a Cam Newton pass that safety Mike Adams picked off.
It was a microcosm of Munnerlyn’s performance the entire camp.
“He’s playing nickel about as good as I’ve seen him, even back four or five years ago when he was here with us to begin with,” Rivera said. “Captain is firmly entrenched right now as the nickel. He’s doing a great job. He’s working really hard.”
Munnerlyn’s play has not come at the expense of Thompson, who’s also had a great camp at outside linebacker. With linebacker Thomas Davis suspended the first four games, the Panthers will need both Munnerlyn and Thompson on the field at the same time.
“Shaq is a very good football player. I love Shaq to death. He’s probably one of the most athletic guys I’ve been around,” Munnerlyn said. “But it’s kind of different trying to put a guy who played linebacker at 230 (pounds) to play a slot guy. Playing guys like Julian Edelman. It’s kind of tough. I felt like I was supposed to have been that guy.”
That Munnerlyn seems to be a different guy this year has made all the difference.
So when the playing time mix-up occurred in Buffalo, he didn’t pout or stomp off to the coaches’ offices. Instead, he held his tongue and waited for the coaches to speak to him.
“Coach Rivera came to me first and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get you some more reps. Get you going. Get you ready to play.’ I was like, ‘Yes, sir,’” Munnerlyn said.
“I didn’t go to him like I would have last year and complain, like, ‘Man, Coach, come on. I only played three plays. What’s going on?’ I didn’t do that.”
Rivera said Munnerlyn would make up the missed snaps in this week’s exhibition against Miami.
“We lost count of his snaps in the game. And we pulled him out before we should have. We’re going to get him some extra ones this coming week,” he said. “But he’s done a great job. I can’t say enough about how hard he’s working right now.”