When Jerricho Cotchery played in Pittsburgh, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would tell teammates Cotchery was the oldest player in the offensive huddle, never mind that Roethlisberger, 32, is three months older than Cotchery.
“But it seems like he’s a lot older than me,” Roethlisberger said this week.
When the message was relayed to Cotchery, the Carolina Panthers wideout laughed loudly and said, “I try to keep guys in line.”
When the Panthers signed Cotchery to a two-year deal during the offseason, his leadership skills and ability to guide young players were trumpeted as much as the career-high 10 touchdowns passes he caught from Roethlisberger last season.
And while Cotchery already has made an impression on several of the Panthers’ first-year players, he’s also shown he can still play: Cotchery’s eight receptions are tied with rookie Kelvin Benjamin for the most among the team’s wide receivers.
Now the question is whether Cotchery will be able to play against his former team.
Cotchery missed Friday’s practice after injuring his hamstring Thursday. He’s listed as questionable and will be a game-day decision for the Sunday matchup against Pittsburgh, where he spent the past three seasons.
“It’s crazy, out of all weeks. But I’m preparing for a long year. I came here to play football in January and February,” Cotchery said Friday. “So hopefully I feel good on Sunday and I’m able to go. But if not, just looking forward to the long run this year.”
Cotchery, who is listed at 6-1 and 205 pounds but looks smaller, might have lost a step or two since the Jets drafted him in the fourth round in 2004. But in his 11th season, the former N.C. State standout is still finding ways to get open.
“It is just the understanding of the game,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s not the biggest, fastest, or strongest, but his toughness, understanding and desire make him what he is and how good he is. He just has a nose for the end zone.”
Cotchery said he earned the trust of Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. That chemistry paid off last season when each of Cotchery’s touchdown catches came in the red zone.
“He just always found a way to make plays. He’s not a guy that gripes or complains about not getting enough catches, yards or touchdowns,” Roethlisberger said. “He just goes and plays the game hard, and good things happen for him.”
Cotchery wants good things to happen to the players around him, as well.
It’s been well documented that part of the reason the Panthers cut Steve Smith was the belief that the franchise’s career receiving leader would not be receptive to grooming his successor, whom the Panthers planned to take in a receiving-rich draft.
In Cotchery and Jason Avant, general manager Dave Gettleman brought in two veterans with reputations as locker room leaders, dependable receivers and solid citizens.
Cotchery said Panthers officials never talked to him about acting as a mentor during the negotiations. They didn’t have to.
“As the years progress, you want to be known for being a guy that’s willing to help his teammates, that can encourage guys to get better and do what he can to help the locker room be a good locker room,” Cotchery said.
“I liked it because they knew what they were getting as a person,” Cotchery added. “That was topping, that was extra. ‘Let’s talk about football. Let’s talk about how you can help us on the football field. And we know that from a personal standpoint, you’ll be able to help.’ ”
Cotchery already has helped – and not only with Benjamin, the first-round pick and the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver.
Cotchery has counseled De’Andre Presley, the former Appalachian State player who moved from cornerback to receiver during the offseason. Presley appreciates that Cotchery is approachable and willing to work with young, unproven players.
“He’s been an open door,” said Presley, who is on the physically unable to perform list with a leg injury. “He’s helped, and he continues to help. He’s been a huge impact on me as a receiver.”
Cotchery, who lines up in the slot, also has given tips to rookie Bené Benwikere, who as the starting nickel back usually is responsible for covering the slot receiver.
“Ever since I asked him that first initial question, I haven’t had to ask him anything else,” Benwikere said. “He’s the guy who’s going to talk to me and kind of teach me how to play leverages, understand what he’s reading. He’s been a big help.”
Avant had met Cotchery at a couple of offseason spiritual retreats for NFL players, and the two have become close during their six months together in Charlotte.
Avant, 31, said Cotchery has been a stabilizing influence for quarterback Cam Newton on the field, and for a number of other players, Avant included.
“I take something from him everyday,” Avant said.