For a guy who was regularly voted as one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, Cortland Finnegan made sure he said all the right things – and avoided all the right things – in his talk with reporters on Monday after he signed with the Carolina Panthers.
Finnegan, a 10-year veteran, made it clear he knows his role – bolster a top-two defense that needs an upgrade at nickel cornerback – and he’s not trying to mess with the mojo.
“These guys, for 18 or 20 weeks, have been putting it in, including training camp,” Finnegan said. “I’m the new guy on the block so I have to come in here and work hard because they’ve done a great job up to this point.”
After working Finnegan out with two other corners on Friday, the Panthers, worried about Charles Tillman’s availability because of a knee injury, signed him on Monday. Tillman’s injury, which will sideline him for a least another week and probably more, forced Carolina to slide second-year nickel Bené Benwikere outside, and play in the slot has taken a hit with Colin Jones, a more natural safety.
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Finnegan brings 18 career interceptions – including five each season in 2008 and 2009 – to a Panthers group whose 18 interceptions are four better than the second-ranked team.
He played at Tennessee from 2006 to 2011 before signing with the Rams. He only played two years of his five-year, $70 million contract before being released by St. Louis, and he played one year for the Dolphins with no interceptions before being cut again.
Finnegan retired from football in March but never filed paperwork. He continued working out five times a week in Nashville, and he worked out for the Patriots recently before his tryout in Charlotte.
“Any time you can add a guy of Finnegan’s experience at this point in the year, you’re excited about it,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “He plays our style of football – an aggressive up-tempo attacking style of football on the defensive side. (I) feel good about our conversations to this point. This’ll be a big week for us.”
McDermott said it’s “nice to have options” at the nickel position with Finnegan, Jones and even linebacker Shaq Thompson. But it’s clear that Finnegan will be the starter when he gets into game shape.
“I love the fact that you’re a mini linebacker and you can play defensive back and sometimes you get a slot receiver who can wiggle,” said Finnegan, who at 5-foot-9 is a muscular 177 pounds.
Finnegan deferred to the Panthers’ coaches on whether he’d be able to play right away when the Panthers travel to New Orleans on Sunday. McDermott said he’s taking the wait-and-see approach as they deal with a player who hasn’t been on an NFL practice field since December of last year.
Locker room chemistry, especially nearly three-quarters of the way through what could be a perfect season, is of utmost importance for these Panthers. If you bring in a well-known free agent, you better be sure he’ll fit in.
That’s what Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is betting on with Finnegan. While there’s no evidence Finnegan has had trouble in any of the locker rooms he’s been in, he hasn’t avoided it on the field against opponents.
In 2010 he seemed to target Broncos guard Chris Kuper on a play in which Kuper lost his helmet. Later that year he got in an on-field fight with receiver Andre Johnson, a moment Finnegan’s probably most known for, in which both their helmets were ripped off, fists flew and both were ejected.
Finnegan is known for getting under opponents’ skin. One time he suckered a Washington receiver into a personal foul penalty that pushed the potential game-tying field goal out of range.
The receiver, Josh Morgan, said Finnegan was the Dennis Rodman of the NBA.
“Well you know the funny thing is he’s my favorite basketball player of all-time. Go figure,” Finnegan said quickly. “All his antics outside of basketball, let’s not go there. I loved his work ethic. He came in and worked hard and had guys around him.
“It’s similar to this. I just want to come in and help because these guys are already great.”