Dean Marlowe walked through the tunnel at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium clutching tightly the ball he had just intercepted to end the game and seal the exhibition win for the Panthers two weeks ago.
Marlowe, an undrafted rookie safety, put the ball in his helmet in his locker for safe keeping while he showered. It was going to be a mantelpiece for him home – his first NFL interception.
Except, when he got back to his locker, his helmet had been packed and the football was nowhere to be found.
“It had the Buffalo logo on it too so I knew I had that ball,” Marlowe said. “It was my interception.”
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While it was Marlowe’s first interception in a game setting, he has gotten plenty more in practice as he has tried to latch on with the Panthers. Last week he picked off teammate Cam Newton, and then Sunday afternoon he intercepted a deep Joe Webb pass after the third-string quarterback scrambled out of the pocket looking for Ted Ginn Jr.
The plays have shown growth for the rookie out of James Madison, who when he came to this spring’s rookie minicamp had the physicality but not exactly the defensive wherewithal in an NFL scheme.
What docked Marlowe early was, like many rookies, the transition from college. But unlike most NFL rookies, Marlowe played at a Football Championship Subdivision school where the competition level is not nearly as great as those coming out of, say, the SEC.
“I came from a (FCS) school where obviously the speed is going to be more increased (in the NFL) because there’s only about two guys that get a chance at the next level from smaller schools.” Marlowe said.
“I learned since now that everything is slowing down for me, I’m being more vocal now because I’m getting to know the defense. Not just learn it but know it. Now I’m being more vocal and things are becoming easier for me.”
In the Buffalo exhibition, Marlowe said he graded out in the mid-70s. That has increased each week, with Friday night’s exhibition with the Patriots scoring him in the mid-80s, he said.
“Dean’s beginning to get comfortable,” coach Ron Rivera said. “The more he’s in the book, the more he’s on the field getting reps, you can see it.”
Marlowe had two tackles in 24 snaps against New England, as well as 10 plays on special teams. The coaches are beginning to trust him on the field more after a shaky spring and start to training camp.
Marlowe has gotten more patient as he has received more reps in practice. That, combined with some solid play in exhibitions, has the safety thinking about making the final 53-man roster this weekend when cuts are made.
“I’ll take whatever I can get. It’s out of my control. But my goal is 53,” Marlowe said. “That’s what I want. I’m going to control what I can control and let everything take care of itself.”
To do that, though, Carolina would have to keep a fifth safety. Roman Harper, Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston are locks to make the team, and Colin Jones offers so much versatility as a nickel cornerback, safety and special teams player that he’s not going anywhere.
Rivera, looking toward 2016, essentially placed Marlowe on this year’s practice squad when asked Sunday.
“He’s a long ways away from where we need him to be but again he’s a young guy that’s got a chance,” Rivera said. “He’ll grow. A good year of seasoning, a good year to watch and grow, I think he’s going to be a quality football player some day.”
If it’s the practice squad, so be it for Marlowe. But the Panthers have one final exhibition before cut day, and that’s Thursday in Pittsburgh.
And that’s where he hopes to get that intercepted pass that will finally go on his mantle.