Panthers rookie fullback Devon Johnson
Carolina Panthers defensive backs coach Steve Wilks had gone through five drafts in Carolina before the one last month.
In those five drafts, the Panthers had taken three cornerbacks and two safeties. And in more recent years the team has looked to bring in veterans to fill holes in the defensive backfield.
So when general manager Dave Gettleman pulled the trigger on three cornerbacks in this year’s draft, Wilks was the happiest position coach on the team.
“I’ve been around here five years and let’s just say I was happy,” Wilks said through his smile.
Second-rounder James Bradberry, third-rounder Daryl Worley and fifth-rounder Zack Sanchez made their debut in Panthers’ practice jerseys this weekend at rookie minicamp.
The trio, clearly the top defensive backs in the bunch, started at the three corner positions. Bradberry and Worley each took outside corner while Sanchez slid into his new role at nickel after years of playing outside at Oklahoma.
Throughout the two days, perhaps no one was yelled at or given more instruction than those three.
“That means they like you if they’re on you,” Sanchez said. “If they’re not talking to you, you have something to worry about. It’s great to get coaching from them and having them make me see things.”
Josh Norman and Robert McClain got the starting nods at cornerback in Super Bowl 50, and veteran Cortland Finnegan was Carolina’s top nickel in the game.
With Norman in Washington and Finnegan not getting re-signed, that leaves McClain as the only holdover from that group. And just because the Panthers brought in three corners doesn’t mean they automatically get the gigs.
“The guys in the room know; it’s a clean slate,” Wilks said. “Super Bowl 50 was Super Bowl 50. We’re going to play the best guys. If those rookies come in and outperform the older guys then that’s what we’re going to go with. They have a clean slate, and we’re going to put the best guys on the field.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera agreed with Wilks but added third-year corner Bene Benwikere “probably has an edge because of experience” on the others. Benwikere, who broke his leg late in the season, will go from inside to outside cornerback in 2016.
McClain will be competing for the other outside cornerback position and could figure into the nickel role, as well. Bradberry and Worley will duke it out at outside corner and Sanchez will work inside.
The sudden and surprising departure of Norman didn’t throw off Carolina’s defensive plans, Wilks said. When Gettleman rescinded Norman’s franchise tag, the scheme was already in place.
“It wasn’t the mere fact of scrapping our plans,” Wilks said. “Dave and his whole staff, we had a plan on what we wanted to do in the draft. I think we targeted the right guys and got the right guys that we wanted. They’re tall, physical, can tackle, great ball skills, everything that we look for.
“I think it’s going to be an easy transition. They’ve just got to get caught up to speed and understanding and learning the defense.”
But it’s tough to ignore the obvious. Bradberry is the team’s second-round pick and first cornerback selection from the draft.
He, like Norman, hails from a small school. Norman went to Coastal Carolina, and Bradberry attended Samford.
And in the days after his selection, Bradberry picked Norman’s former No. 24 to wear.
“When I picked the number, I was just picking a nice number,” Bradberry said. “I’ve seen guys in the past like Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis. Of course I saw Josh Norman, who played in it last year. But I just like the number. They didn’t have 21. That was my college number. So I decided to go with 24.”
Of the three, Worley probably played the best of them all.
He was constantly getting his hands on passes in the two-day minicamp and rarely beaten.
He picked off a Seth Lobato pass on Friday when the quarterback threw behind his receiver in team drills. The next day Worley got his hands on another pass during one-on-ones.
“(The scheme) is very similar to what we ran in college,” said Worley, who played at West Virginia. “We were an attack-style defense, so it runs closely with what I did at school. It’s kind of an easy transition just learning the playbook.”
Playing the nickel position, Sanchez will have to improve as a tackler. Going against big receivers and running backs, Sanchez needs to translate the power in his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame into tackles.
“It’s just a technique thing,” Sanchez said. “Finishing through and not shooting early or ducking my head at the point of contact. Be more technically sound and not leaving my feet.”
But aside from the individual aspects the players need to work on, the coaches want to impress upon the rookies that this isn’t college.
All three of the players were among the best at any position on their respective teams. Now they join a defense that’s ranked in the top 10 in each of the past four seasons.
“One of the things I try to explain,” Wilks said, “is, ‘OK you have Thomas Davis, you got Luke Kuechly, you’ve got these guys up front; we need you to do your job.’ ”