The week of Thanksgiving is an unfortunate time to get a flu-like illness, let alone in the days before an NFL road game.
But Carolina Panthers nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is suffering from that very stroke of misfortune, and missed three days of practice.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Friday that Munnerlyn has been contagious, so has not even been in the building for fear of sickening his teammates.
What Rivera wouldn’t say was which backup option the team will turn to with Munnerlyn out for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J.
“Well, we’ve got a plethora of defensive backs that we can use in that situation,” Rivera said, but he did not expand.
Carolina plays a 4-3 base defense but consistently relies heavily on its nickel package, featuring Munnerlyn in the traditional nickel and linebacker Shaq Thompson in the hybrid “Buffalo nickel” role.
With Munnerlyn out, Carolina could lean more heavily on Thompson. But it seems more likely the team will test one of its defensive backs. Corners Kevon Seymour, who arrived just before the Panthers’ first game via trade with Buffalo, and LaDarius Gunter have experience in the nickel.
If Seymour is the choice, cornerback Daryl Worley, who has rotated with Seymour on the outside for the past several weeks (and was frustrated about it), would start and play the majority of defensive snaps there.
In the preseason, the Panthers liked undrafted free agent pickup Cole Luke as the immediate depth behind Munnerlyn. He and rookie draft pick Corn Elder, who also could be valuable depth at nickel, are both on injured reserve, however.
Rivera has also played safety Colin Jones at nickel in the past.
New York will undoubtedly look to capitalize off of any variation of the above.
The Jets’ veteran slot receiver, Jeremy Kerley, is still serving a four-week suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. That left just four receivers on the active roster, including rookies Chad Hansen and ArDarius Stewart.
Both Hansen and Stewart have seen some time in the slot, the position often matched up against nickel corners, but the two have combined for only eight catches and 69 yards this season.
Pass-catching running back Matt Forte would be more of a matchup problem against a nickel – and very problematic against a nickel lacking Munnerlyn’s experience – but Forte is also listed as “questionable” after sitting out most of this week’s practices with swelling in his knee. He has caught 29 passes for 222 yards this season.