Carolina Panthers

For Panthers’ James Bradberry, career-defining stretch starts Sunday with Julio Jones

Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry (24) will enter his fourth season with the team and has showed steady improvement each year.
Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry (24) will enter his fourth season with the team and has showed steady improvement each year. AP

Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry is hoping that after Sunday’s matchup at Atlanta, he stops getting Julio Jones questions. And he will.

They’ll switch to A.J. Green questions when Cincinnati comes to Charlotte in Week 3.

And then he’ll get Odell Beckham Jr. questions when the Panthers host the Giants in Week 5. And Antonio Brown questions before Week 10 at Pittsburgh.

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New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham is one of many premier receivers to be faced by Panthers cornerback James Bradberry this season. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) Bill Kostroun AP

How he answers these questions on the field in his third season, in which Bradberry will face more premier receivers than ever before, will determine who he is as a player.

It will determine whether he can catapult into the upper-echelon of corners in the NFL, and perhaps even determine his long-term future in Carolina.

“That’s the plan, is to go out this year and ball out,” Bradberry said, “and get my name out there.”

It’s a big year. But it all starts with Jones and Sunday’s 1 p.m. game in Atlanta.

And that’s fitting, because of all of the premier receivers in the league, Jones is the one Bradberry has faced the most.

And their history began with a hard lesson.

What a young corner learns

Panthers nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn says a young corner learns pretty quickly how good he is after facing a guy like Jones.

“You’re definitely going to learn if you can tackle or not, because he’s a big, fast, physical guy,” Munnerlyn laughed this week.

Teams gameplan to contain Jones, because trying to shut him down completely can backfire disastrously. The Panthers will specifically try to limit his yards after the catch, because he is dangerous there too.

But the thing about Jones, aside from the 9,223-yard production over the past eight seasons, is that he’s productive when he’s not quarterback Matt Ryan’s target, too.

“Even if he’s not getting the ball, he’s going to block you,” Munnerlyn said. “He’s one of the best in the league who is doing that.”

And when he does get targeted?

“He’s a guy who can definitely take it the distance at any time,” Munnerlyn said. “He can take a slant and go for 80 yards.”

What about 300?

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Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones will square off with Panthers cornerback James Bradberry once again this Sunday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Matt Rourke AP

In Week 4 of 2016, Bradberry’s rookie season, he started against Jones for the first time, and hurt his toe in the first quarter. He had to leave the game, and tried to come back in the third quarter to no avail. The Panthers, already thin at cornerback after letting starter Josh Norman walk the previous spring, plugged in a few different options. The results were, well ...

“I thought the scoreboard had messed up,” said Munnerlyn, who at that time was far away in Minnesota and caught a glance at the jumbo screen as his team warmed up for the Giants.

Jones put up 300 yards. Munnerlyn said he thinks the Panthers burned the tape from the 48-33 Falcons victory.

Bradberry was in and out of the locker room throughout most of the game. But he remembers the Atlanta fans chanting Jones’ name.

“I just knew we couldn’t let that happen again,” he said. “It was a disappointment, of course to us, but also we let our fans and our coaches down. And I didn’t want to see that reaction on their faces again.”

Growth

Bradberry has been able to chip away at Jones from time to time since that day.

In the rematch in 2016, Jones was held to four catches for 60 yards. In the Panthers’ two games against Atlanta in 2017, Jones had six catches for 118 yards and five catches for 80 yards, respectively. Bradberry hasn’t covered Jones on every snap, but has gotten the bulk of the responsibility.

If the first time the two met was a “baptism by fire” of sorts for Bradberry, next three showed more growth.

When they drafted Bradberry in the second round out of Samford, the Panthers saw a long, physical player who liked to bump-and-run against receivers quickly off the line.

He’s still that player, but he’s taking better care of his body now. Bradberry cooks for himself a lot in the offseason to maintain his weight, and he’s heavy on lean steak and broccoli.

Carolina Panthers starting cornerback James Bradberry cooks a meal and talks football in his home with Panthers beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue.

And it’s not just his nutrition that has improved. Against San Francisco in the 2017 season opener, Bradberry had to keep pace with lightning-fast receiver Marquise Goodwin on “nine,” or “go,” routes. It was a hot day in San Jose, and Bradberry cramped up and had to get an IV mid-game before returning.

That’s not the case anymore, he said. His conditioning is better, and he has even added a little swimming for cardiovascular training to his workout routine.

That will help on Sunday. Bradberry said he expects the Falcons to use either Jones or another receiver to “run him off” so that Bradberry gets tired, and then sub in Jones or another receiver to target what Atlanta hopes will be a spent cornerback.

“It will probably (happen to me), so I’m going to be conditioned for it,” he said.

Then he added, “I won’t be tired, for sure.”

That confidence is something else Bradberry has developed, too.

Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry wants to find consistency and leadership as he enters his third NFL season. He talks about that and more while cooking with the Observer's Jourdan Rodrigue.

For example, he relishes the opportunity to face Jones and the other talented receivers he’ll match up against later in the season.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said this week that he has learned the most about his own young cornerbacks by their mindset in facing Jones in practice.

“Most terrific competitors want their shot to go see who’s the best,” he said. “We have a corner here, he plays nickel for us, named Brian Poole. I knew we had something with Brian three years ago as an undrafted rookie. In those training camp lines he was looking to go against Julio, not avoid him.”

Bradberry can relate.

“That’s why we all play football, just coming in here and playing sports in general, is to be competitive and have fun out there,” he said.

“And that’s what I find fun, is going against the best.”

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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

Time to make a statement

Two years after his first start against Atlanta, Bradberry is the only remaining defensive back from the group who faced the Falcons on that explosive Sunday in 2016.

“(We’ve gotten better by) just learning from our mistakes,” he said. “And adding key pieces like (rookie cornerback) Donte Jackson, (veteran safeties) Da’Norris Searcy and Mike Adams to our defense. Those guys help out a lot. And they bring in a lot of knowledge. But of course we’re going to learn from our mistakes.”

And this year is when it becomes most important for Bradberry to start putting it all together.

To earn a big money, long-term investment from a team after the 2019 season, Bradberry’s consistency during the next two seasons is crucial.

This stretch, which starts with Jones, can be when Bradberry makes a name for himself, and a case for his future. And he knows it.

“I love Carolina,” he said. “Carolina has been good to me going into these past two years, going into my third year. So I want to be here for the long haul, and I have to play well these next few weeks to do that.”

The minute the Panthers’ 2018 schedule came out, some of Bradberry’s friends saw the caliber of the receivers he’d face and started texting him their thoughts. They haven’t stopped.

“They’re always hitting me up about that,” he said. “One of my friends told me I’m going to have a hard time this year, just going week in and week out and just trying to be focused and consistent.

“(But) I’m just going to take one game at a time and go from there. ... We’re just going to be honest, I know we’re playing great receivers this year. That’s how it is in the NFL. That’s the way the schedule lined up. I’m ready for it.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
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