Zack Sanchez has never met Josh Norman or watched him play in person.
All Sanchez knows about Norman is what he’s seen on tape – and the fact that everyone keeps comparing Sanchez to the Carolina Panthers’ former Pro Bowl cornerback.
Confidence bordering on cockiness, a risk-taker in the secondary and an outstanding playmaker – many of the things NFL scouts were saying about Norman when he was a fifth-round pick in 2012 apply to Sanchez. Now Sanchez, the Panthers’ fifth-round pick this year out of Oklahoma, is among the candidates to replace Norman.
“Our style is kind of the same. How he plays a lot with his eyes is kind of how I play. I can definitely see a comparison,” Sanchez said Friday in a phone interview from his family’s home in Fort Worth, Texas.
“To be compared to a guy like that, it’s an honor. It’s cool. But I’ve still got a lot to prove in this league. I’ve still got to make the roster this season and I’ve still got to be a guy that they can rely on to make plays, something like he was.”
Norman’s freelancing style and tendency to stray from the Panthers’ scheme at times landed him in Ron Rivera’s doghouse during his first two NFL seasons. But those same instincts led to Norman’s All-Pro season in 2015, which turned out to be his last with Carolina after general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded his franchise tag a week before the draft.
Gettleman used three successive picks on corners: Samford’s James Bradberry in the second round, West Virginia’s Daryl Worley (third) and Sanchez.
That he was the third corner taken – or the fact he’s the smallest (5-11, 185) of the trio – matters little to Sanchez.
“I know they were drafted before me and people want to blow it up and make it a story. But it didn’t matter if I was the first one taken,” Sanchez said. “I just want to compete and I want to show that I’m here to play and I’m a guy they can’t take off the field.”
A baseball background
Had Sanchez grown up in Florida or California and not in football-crazed Texas, he might be playing center field for a triple-A affiliate this spring rather than preparing for the Panthers’ rookie minicamp next weekend in Charlotte.
Sanchez was an accomplished baseball player growing up. And when he went to Cooperstown, N.Y., site of baseball’s Hall of Fame, for a national tournament when he was 13, he was convinced he’d be in the major leagues one day.
Then he saw the light – specifically the LED stadium lights that have become synonymous with the big-time nature of Texas high school football.
“Once I got to high school, football just kind of took over my love and my passion and my time,” Sanchez said. “So I kind of just gave baseball a rest. But it’s something I regret doing every day.”
The hours spent running after fly balls in the gap didn’t go to waste, though. Sanchez believes his outfield background helped him develop the ability to track down balls in the secondary.
“I could just get a jump on balls and probably made plays when I was younger that I probably shouldn’t have,” he said. “I’ve always had that gift of being able to track the ball in the air and being able to go get it and come down with it.”
His early success in baseball also gave Sanchez a swagger that he still carries. Asked what his best baseball traits were, Sanchez said: “To be honest with you, there was really nothing that I couldn’t do.”
Growing up in Texas
One thing Sanchez can’t do is speak Spanish, despite being of Hispanic descent.
Sanchez’s biological father is black, while his mother and stepfather grew up in small towns in west Texas and are of Mexican heritage.
“I can understand more than I speak just because I’ve always been around it,” said Sanchez, whose parents are both fluent in Spanish.
Sanchez made the varsity as a freshman at Central High in north Fort Worth and was a starting safety his sophomore year. His senior season Sanchez helped lead Central to the first playoff berth in its nine-year history.
Central’s reward? A first-round game against perennial power Allen, a matchup that drew 42,000 to AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
Central fell 30-17 in Sanchez’s final high school game, but Sanchez – a first-team all-state selection – continued his career at Oklahoma.
After redshirting as a freshman, Sanchez became a three-year starter for the Sooners and earned a reputation as a ball-hawk – and as a player who was not afraid to take some chances going after the ball.
After drafting Sanchez last week, Gettleman said: “He’s instinctive, he’s smart, and yes, he’s a gambler.”
But Sanchez believes that’s a loaded word.
“I wouldn’t call myself a gambler. If I was that good a gambler I’d probably be a poker player right now,” said Sanchez, who had 13 interceptions his final two years at Oklahoma.
“I think it’s a little more preparation than people think – my instincts and my ability to dissect things and read things before they happen. I think you get the gambling title when you jump something a little too early and you get beat.”
Must tackle better
Sanchez says those times he was beaten in coverage had more to do with sloppy technique than shirking his responsibility and jumping a route. But he readily admits he needs to improve as a tackler, which is a prerequisite for corners in defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s system.
That’s especially the case for nickel corners, where Sanchez could wind up lined up against slot receivers. Sanchez played nickel early in his Sooners career.
"Of the three guys, Zack would be the one who will work inside, I think that’s fair to say for sure," Gettleman said. "The thing about Zack is, he’s really instinctive. He really knows the game. He just likes to bite on double moves, what can I tell ya? Sometimes I drink a milkshake."
Sanchez – unsurprisingly given his confidence – believes he can be an every-down corner in the NFL.
“You want to be one of those guys that’s outside and is a shutdown corner,” he said. “I’m a rookie so I’ve got to take what they give me. And wherever they put me I’ve got to be able to make plays, whether it’s inside or outside.”