Carolina Panthers

Panthers try to form core at cornerback

Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez (15), drafted Saturday by the Panthers, breaks up a pass last October. Sanchez was the third cornerback drafted by the Panthers in two days.
Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez (15), drafted Saturday by the Panthers, breaks up a pass last October. Sanchez was the third cornerback drafted by the Panthers in two days. AP

Dave Gettleman took one cornerback in his first three drafts as the Panthers general manager.

He grabbed three in 17 hours over the weekend, selecting one in each of the second, third and fifth rounds as the Panthers began the process of rebuilding a secondary that has featured a giant hole since Josh Norman took his talents to the nation’s capital.

After Gettleman scratched his big-dude itch in the first round with Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler, he made a run on corners by taking Samford’s James Bradberry and West Virginia’s Daryl Worley on Friday and adding Oklahoma’s Zack Sanchez in the fifth round Saturday.

According to the Panthers, it’s believed to be the third time a team has drafted corners with three consecutive picks.

Gettleman has long preached about drafting the best player available. And he said the Panthers tried to be careful not to overvalue the corners, despite the glaring need at the position.

“We really worked hard to make sure we did not artificially inflate grades,” Gettleman said. “And I feel very good about where we selected these guys.”

Norman’s jarring departure – after Gettleman rescinded his franchise tag – was just part of the Panthers’ exodus in the secondary.

Veteran corners Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan and safety Roman Harper – mainstays on the last year’s NFC-champion team – were not brought back.

Gettleman normally fills roster voids in free agency. But since he pulled the franchise offer from Norman seven weeks after free agency started, there were no Pro Bowl-caliber corners looking for work.

The three defensive backs were the most taken by the Panthers since 1995, when they selected four among their 11 picks in their inaugural draft.

Gettleman said criticism that the Panthers have largely ignored the corner position in past drafts was valid. He was seeking stability at corner when he doubled down there Friday and went back to the well Saturday.

“You want to have a core. You obviously want to have stability like we have with the offensive line now and how we’ve had with the linebackers. Now with the wide receiver group we’ve fixed that,” Gettleman said. “You want stability and I think all three of these young kids are talented enough to play in this league and we feel like a couple of them have a chance to be really good players.”

Bradberry, Worley and Sanchez will be lumped together in much the same way defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have been since Gettleman took them in the first two rounds in 2013.

Sanchez, who had 13 interceptions his final two seasons for the Sooners, expects it to be a friendly rivalry among the three corners – but a rivalry nonetheless.

“I understand they are my teammates, but I am here to compete with anybody,” Sanchez said Saturday in a conference call. “The better they compete, the better I am. So I think it is just going to make us all better in the long run.”

Sanchez seems to have a little Norman in him.

Both were taken in the fifth round and aren’t afraid to take chances to make plays on the ball. Sanchez had 13 interceptions his final two seasons with the Sooners, including seven in 2015 when he tied for fifth nationally.

“He’s a gambler. He’s got a ton of picks,” Gettleman said. “Sometimes like the basketball player that scores 25 and his guy gets 18, I’ll take it.”

Like Norman, who as a rookie challenged Steve Smith in some of his first practices, Sanchez does not lack for confidence.

Sanchez told the Tulsa World he was the “best defensive playmaker in the draft, hands down.” Having to wait until the draft’s final day to hear his name called did not dull his enthusiasm.

“There’s things obviously I still need to work on and fix,” Sanchez said. “But I was born with the ability to make plays and have better instincts than a lot of guys.”

Sanchez, at 5-11 and 185 pounds, is the smallest of the three drafted corners and admits he needs to become a better tackler. Strength is not an issue: Sanchez’s 19 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the combine were more than what Bradberry (16) and Worley (14) mustered.

Bradberry (6-1, 211) and Worley (6-1, 204) more closely fit the mold of what the Panthers look for in their corners – long, rangy and physical.

Bradberry, a four-year starter at Samford, was an intriguing choice with the 62nd overall pick. Gettleman insists he didn’t reach for him in the second round, although many draft experts had him going as low as the sixth.

Scouts were impressed with Bradberry’s size and speed, and he could play safety if there’s a logjam at the position. But for now the plan is to play all three at corner, where the Panthers’ top returning player (Bene’ Benwikere) is still recovering from a broken bone in his leg that ended his 2015 season in December.

Norman has been showing up everywhere this weekend. He was in Charlotte on Friday for the Hornets-Heat playoff game, then back closer to his new home Saturday for the White House correspondents dinner.

Norman might be gone, but the ripple effect of his departure was evident throughout the Panthers’ draft.

“I don’t know too much about what went down, but I know Josh was a great corner and a great player,” Sanchez said. “I wish him nothing but the best. But you know I’m a Carolina Panther now and my focus is on the Panthers and my team.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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