Head coach Ron Rivera deferred to Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney when he was asked Wednesday whether he’d like to see a long-term contract worked out for cornerback James Bradberry.
But he added something important, too.
“He is a guy that I hope we do keep around,” said Rivera, “because he is important to what we’ve done. We’ve kind of shown that you have to be able to keep that type of a corner around.”
Point taken, Coach.
The last time Carolina had the chance to extend a worthy cornerback came in the spring of 2016. His name? Josh Norman.
But that opportunity spiraled into a disaster that took a long, long time to fix, when then-general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag offer he had extended to Norman.
Norman signed with Washington, and the Panthers scrambled to find consistency in their secondary from year to year until now, as Bradberry enters his fourth season as a starter.
Now, Bradberry finally has consistency around him, with a returning starting partner in Donte Jackson and some stability at safety in Eric Reid.
But over the last three years, the only constant of the Panthers’ secondary has been Bradberry’s consistent growth despite so much turnover.
“(James) is steady,” said Rivera. “He comes to work and he works hard. He does the things he needs to do to improve. That’s one of the things I’ve been most impressed with, is just how resilient he is.”
He still has room to grow, of course. Bradberry isn’t quite a ball-hawk, with just five interceptions in his three seasons in Carolina.
But mimicking his own personality, Bradberry’s less-flashy plays are what have been just as important to the Panthers, who match him up against some of the better receivers in the league — including a consecutive stretch of A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. last fall.
Bradberry had 15 pass breakups in 2018, while allowing the fifth-lowest completion percentage in the NFL when quarterbacks threw to receivers he was covering.
Perhaps most crucial to the Panthers, Bradberry has been consistent in his solid coverage of the NFC South’s elite receivers, like Jones, New Orleans’ Michael Thomas and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.
Bradberry held Jones to 58 yards in Week 2 and 28 yards in Week 16; Evans, to one catch and 10 yards in Week 9; and Thomas to 49 yards in Week 15.
“I think I’ve shown that I am capable of being a top corner in this league,” Bradberry said Wednesday, after the Panthers’ veteran minicamp workout. “I just had to make sure I stayed on my P’s and Q’s, on top of my toes. Did a lot of film study each and every week.”
The Panthers say they are setting him up for more success on the field this year. Bradberry said Wednesday he’ll be playing more press, meaning he’ll be able to get more up close and personal — and physical — with receivers closer to the line. That’s much more aligned to Bradberry’s skill set than in years past, when it wasn’t uncommon to see him lined up 15 yards off scrimmage.
“That’s what we’ve been working on every practice, working on our press-technique,” he said, grinning. “We’re playing a lot more of that this year and I’m looking forward to it.”
Added Rivera, “We want to take advantage of his skill sets...He’s got good, quick feet but one of his advantages is that he’s got really strong hands. We need to exploit that a little bit more.”
Bradberry does not have Norman’s celebrity. But he recently worked the national media circuit in New York, appearing on Good Morning Football, and locally in Charlotte as he honed his cooking skills on television at Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen. He’s putting himself out there a little more, though he will never be the flashy, chatty type.
Instead, Bradberry said, he’s taking everything one day at a time, and “waiting his turn” — though when asked, he admitted that he’d love to get a deal done prior to training camp.
Now, it’s the Panthers’ turn to put themselves out there.
By extending Bradberry, the Panthers would be paying for consistency — not just on the field, but as a way to avoid the years-long mess they only recently have cleaned up.
And if they do it before training camp, they’d show the self-awareness to keep the mistakes of the past, in the past.