Josh Norman might be gone, but the mantra of the Carolina Panthers’ secondary remains alive and well.
The group’s sign made it back from Santa Clara, Calif., site of Super Bowl 50, and is hanging above the row of lockers belonging to the defensive backs at Bank of America Stadium.
“Thieves Avenue is where we live. We are the thieves. And why does it change? It doesn’t,” strong safety Kurt Coleman said Thursday. “Whether I’m here, whether I’m not here, the mantra is still the same. We want to lead the league in takeaways.”
The Panthers led the NFL in every turnover category in 2015, finishing with 39 takeaways, including 24 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries. Carolina also was No. 1 in the league with a plus-20 turnover differential.
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Thieves Avenue is where we live. We are the thieves. And why does it change? It doesn’t.
Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman
Coleman, who signed a three-year, $17 million contract extension this week, was the prince of thieves during his first season in Charlotte. Coleman’s seven interceptions tied for the third most in the NFL and were the second most by a Panthers player in a single season.
And though the Panthers lost Norman and two other top cornerbacks and Coleman moved to a new position, Coleman says the mission is the same.
“If the QB’s throwing the ball deep, we’re going to be there. We’ve got to be able to take the ball away. That’s the mindset,” Coleman said. “We have different people. But that’s OK. I’m excited. We’ll have new thievery and we’re going to take over. We’re just growing and I love it because the ceiling is endless.”
A new beginning
Coleman is the only remaining defensive back starter from last season’s NFC championship team.
Norman signed with Washington after Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded his franchise tag and the $14 million that came with it. Charles Tillman retired, nickel back Cortland Finnegan was not re-signed and strong safety Roman Harper returned to the Saints.
Who’s left in the secondary from the Panthers’ Super Bowl roster? Returning are Coleman, third-year safety Tre Boston and corners Robert McClain, Lou Young and Teddy Williams (primarily a special teams player). Cornerback Bené Benwikere missed the Super Bowl and remains sidelined after breaking his ankle in a December game against Atlanta.
That group will team with rookie corners James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez to form a secondary that most observers view as the biggest question mark on an otherwise stacked roster.
Not that Coleman cares.
“The same people that pat you on the back will stab you in the back,” he said. “I love you media, but you guys ride the waves of emotion.”
A secondary consideration
Under Panthers coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman, the secondary has long been restricted to second-class status on the Carolina defense. While the front seven has included personalities such as Greg Hardy and Pro Bowlers such as Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Kawann Short, Gettleman has built the secondary mostly through under-the-radar free agent signings and lower-round draft picks.
Norman last season joined Eric Davis (1996) as the only Panthers’ defensive backs to make the Pro Bowl. But with Norman’s abrupt exit, the secondary again lacks star power.
As the group has done in years past, expect Coleman and Co. to use the no-respect theme as fire.
“When people don’t know you – similar to last year, people didn’t know who we were – they doubt you. That’s kind of human nature. If you don’t have a superstar, then what can they do? And that’s OK,” said Coleman, who shifted from free to strong safety with Harper’s exit.
“We don’t have a superstar in the back end. We have a lot of guys that are willing to work that are good players. We’re going to make a lot of plays back there.”
Prove you belong
Panthers receiver Philly Brown likes how secondary members rally around the Thieves Avenue motto. But Brown half-jokingly said the young defensive backs should not gain automatic admission.
“They shouldn’t be in it yet until they prove that they can be a part of it. You shouldn’t just be able to walk on and be in such a prestigious group as Thieves Avenue. They’ve got to earn that,” Brown said. “So the three rookies, they’re not in it. But the other guys are.”
Coleman is eager to get a closer look at the three rookies, whom he says have made progress in their first couple of months as professionals.
With Benwikere and recently acquired corner Leonard Johnson (Achilles) out indefinitely, the young corners will be thrown into the mix immediately.
“You can look at their college highlights. But I’ve seen them through OTAs and mincamp. They’ve made a lot of plays. And they’ve grown leaps and bounds since they’ve been there,” Coleman said. “And through training camp they’re only going to get better.”