Sitting in the Wofford student center earlier this week and surrounded by media, Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback Zack Sanchez said he didn’t feel nervous about his first NFL exhibition. Maybe on Thursday in Baltimore he will, but not at that moment.
James Bradberry said the same thing. He thought he’d feel nerves at Fan Fest last week at Bank of America Stadium, but in reality he was just ready to go perform.
Daryl Worley – the final rookie cornerback in a group that makes up the Three Amigos – is the one who tries to downplay everything. When you do that, he says, you’re not overwhelmed.
But he still knows what awaits him before the Panthers kick off against the Ravens Thursday night.
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“When you run out on that field it’ll be just like when you ran out as a freshman in college,” Worley said. “You’re going to have butterflies and be a little bit scared, but I’m looking forward to getting about two series into the game rather than that first snap.”
The Panthers spent their second-, third- and fifth-round picks on cornerbacks in the spring, and the rookies’ next test comes in the first exhibition of the preseason.
Each has had a good camp by rookie standards. The three have earned the majority of first-team reps at their respective positions, with Bradberry and Worley at outside corner and Sanchez playing the nickel.
They’ve gotten their hands on passes thrown by the league MVP and battled with 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin and 6-foot-4 Devin Funchess in camp each day.
Now comes the live action. Now comes the tackling. And Bradberry, Carolina’s second-round pick, just doesn’t want to get burned.
“I want to make sure I complete all my assignments,” Bradberry said. “Don’t give up any deep balls. Honestly don’t get caught on, but in the league that’s going to happen because you’re going against the best competition.”
Can Sanchez tackle?
The biggest knock on Sanchez coming out of Oklahoma, and the biggest question mark surrounding him going into Thursday night, is whether he can tackle NFL receivers.
At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Sanchez would have been one of the slightest outside cornerbacks in the league. The Panthers moved him inside to nickel, and now they have to see how well he holds up against strong slot receivers and tight ends.
“Well you and I both are going to find out Thursday night,” defensive backs coach Steve Wilks said about Sanchez’ tackling. “That’s one of the things when you talk about the identity of our defense, most importantly on the backend, we tackle. And guys who aren’t going to be physical definitely won’t be on the field.
“We’ve seen enough on tape that he’s going to bring that. But once you get into a live situation in an NFL game with the big boys, per se, we’ll see what all those guys are going to do.”
From the start of organized team activities in June and through this week at training camp, the Panthers have put Sanchez in tackling drills with the linebackers.
The drill involves what is essentially a 5-foot padded doughnut ring that an assistant coach rolls onto the field, and Sanchez sheds a block and runs after it minding his technique – driving with the shoulder not the head, and wrapping up.
It can’t simulate what it’s like to be lined up against an NFL receiver in the slot, but it’s a teaching tool.
“That comes with this position,” Sanchez said. “It’s physical in there and we’ve got to be able, when we’re needed, to be in the run fit, and we’re expected to make those tackles.”
The instincts are there
Sanchez is still figuring out the tackling, but his instincts have carried over from college. He had 15 interceptions in his Oklahoma career, including seven last season, playing at outside corner.
Wilks and other Panthers coaches have noted his grittiness inside and his awareness of the game. Perhaps none of the three corners has made more plays on the ball this camp than Sanchez.
In college, Sanchez lined up outside and usually had just one guy he stuck to. Now he’s inside and having to learn more nuances. How to set the front and who’s in motion now matter to Sanchez where they didn’t before.
Sanchez has been in touch with former Sooners teammate Julian Wilson, who now plays for the Ravens. Wilson was the nickel at Oklahoma, and Sanchez only now appreciates what Wilson did after giving him a hard time about the position while in school.
In short, Wilson has said “I told you so” via text a few times.
“The more familiar I get with patterns and the pass concepts, I think it’ll make it a lot easier for me,” Sanchez said. “Once I learn those, my instincts will kick in. It’ll be open game like it was in college.”
Worley has a grip on his spot
Worley has a firm grip on a starting cornerback position because of his huge hands.
They measured at 10 1/4 inches at the NFL scouting combine in the winter, which put him in the 96th percentile among all cornerbacks. He has hand size that quarterbacks would kill for.
A receiver and safety in high school, Worley said he was recruited to West Virginia to play receiver before focusing on defense full time. His six interceptions and 12 pass breakups last year earned him first-team all-conference honors.
“If I were to describe myself, ball skills is definitely the top attribute I would say,” Worley said. “In high school I used to play offense, so that was real heavy to me. When I got to college one thing I learned was if you were around the ball you were doing something right.”
Learning the competition
What makes Worley even better is his football acumen. He knows how to diagnose plays before the snap. He recognizes formations and splits well, and he’s gotten to know the Panthers’ receivers in camp.
Worley knows that Kelvin Benjamin, along with being tall, has a wider body than most receivers, which makes him tougher to get around. And Devin Funchess has deceptively long strides, so it seems like he’s getting up on you before he actually does.
Those smarts have helped him make plays throughout camp.
“We pride ourselves making plays on the ball,” Wilks said. “That’s why the guys came up with the Thieves nickname last year. That persona doesn’t change. The personnel may, but the perception is still there. I’m looking to see these guys make plays on the ball Thursday night.”
Bradberry: A Norman clone?
Nine days after the Panthers rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman, Carolina drafted Bradberry in the second round out of Sanford.
He took Norman’s No. 24, and with a quick glance at the field he looks like Norman, who is now with Washington. Bradberry (6-foot-1) is an inch taller than Norman, and his long arms (33 3/8 inches) are also an inch longer than Norman’s.
But only small children confuse the two.
“Little kids do that all the time,” Bradberry joked. “We have to do rookie events and I have to go somewhere and I have a little kid run up on me and they look at me like, you’re not Josh Norman.”
Bradberry is trying to carve out his own identity even though Norman casts a big shadow. One of Bradberry’s best attributes – like Norman – is his physicality.
He has been great in press-man coverage the line of scrimmage, Wilks said, and his physicality is what Wilks looks for in a Panthers’ defensive back.
But where he separates himself from Norman is his speed. Bradberry’s 4.55-second 40-yard dash time beats Norman’s 4.66 from their respective combines, and Wilks said you can see it on the field.
“When you really look at them, again, Josh has the physicality as well as James,” Wilks said. “But when you look at the difference, James’ vertical speed is the difference. He can run, he can recover.”
That doesn’t mean Bradberry will step right in and be one of the most feared corners in the league, which is what Norman has become. It took the better part of three seasons for Norman to become that, and that’s not the immediate expectation for Bradberry.
But the Panthers are excited for their trio of corners. All will get significant playing time against the Ravens, and that’s likely to continue into the Week 1 contest in Denver.
Should Panthers fans be concerned about three rookies playing so much? Bradberry doesn’t think so.
“I can’t tell them which way to be. But honestly, I wouldn’t be concerned because I’m pretty confident in my abilities,” Bradberry said. “And I’m pretty confident in Daryl and Zack as well. We’ve all shown good signs out there going against the top-rated offense.
“We’ve been doing pretty well so I wouldn’t be concerned.”