Recently acquired cornerback Antoine Cason will arrive in Charlotte in two weeks for the start of the Panthers’ offseason workouts.
He’s already preparing for the jokes.
If Carolina players know anything about Cason’s only year in Arizona, it likely involves his 43-yard fumble return in the Cardinals’ 22-6 win against the Panthers last season in Week 5.
After scooping up the ball following a fourth-quarter sack of Cam Newton, Cason was trucking down the sideline for the end zone ... until Newton ran him down at the Panthers’ 9.
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You can envision the introductions at Bank of America Stadium when Cason shows up for his first day of work.
“Hey, Antoine, welcome to Charlotte. There’s a great steak place in SouthPark. Wait, aren’t you the guy Cam caught from behind?”
Cason said Friday he plans to laugh along with his new teammates.
“Everyone there is going to talk about that one. But it’s always fun jokes,” Cason said in a phone interview from Long Beach, Calif. “You’ve got to have thick skin and continue to get better.”
Cason still has a home in Phoenix, but he’s looking forward to escaping the desert and getting a fresh start in the Carolinas. The Arizona weather didn’t bother him.
Standing on the sidelines was the big turn-off.
Cason agreed to a one-year deal with the Cardinals last March. Two days earlier, Arizona had signed Jerraud Powers, another free agent corner, to a three-year contract.
With Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson entrenched at one of the Cardinals’ cornerback spot, either Cason or Powers was going to be the odd man out.
It was Cason.
While Powers started 16 games, Cason played sparingly for most of the season. When rookie Tyrann Mathieu was injured, Cason was the Cardinals’ nickel corner over the final four games.
Cason still managed to make an impact. He intercepted two passes against Tennessee in a Week 15 victory –returning one 20 yards for a touchdown – and recovered three fumbles during the season.
But the role was not what he was accustomed to.
“It was a learning experience for me. I’ve never been in that situation, and I fought through it,” he said. “I just went about my business as if I were a starter and told myself when I get a chance, I’m going to do what I do.”
Cason, 27, San Diego’s first-round pick in 2008, was a three-year starter for the Chargers, beginning in 2010. The Chargers led the league in total defense and pass defense that season with Panthers coach Ron Rivera as their defensive coordinator and Steve Wilks, the Panthers’ secondary coach, holding the same position in San Diego.
When Cason became a free agent again this year, there wasn’t much of a market for him. Kansas City was the only other team to offer him a contract.
He fired his agent, and hired Drew Rosenhaus to represent him. On March 21, Cason signed a one-year deal with the Panthers worth $730,000, the minimum for a veteran with four to six years of experience.
Cason believes his familiarity with the Panthers’ system will be critical.
“That’s huge because they know me. And we know each other,” Cason said. “They know how I can play. I know how they coach. I believe in them. I respect them as coaches and men.”
Despite his background with Rivera and Wilks, Cason doesn’t expect to have a starting job handed to him. But with the Panthers replacing two of their top three corners, Cason will have an opportunity to redeem himself after his lost year in the desert.
“I’m not done. I’m still a starter and I can show that,” Cason said. “That was one of the things I continued to tell myself all year. Whenever I get my chance, I’m going to make the most of it.”
Rivera believes Cason will help fill a leadership void in the secondary after the departures of Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell in free agency.
“One thing about Antoine, he always wanted to be first in doing anything during drills and his attentiveness to things,” Rivera said recently. “He’s not a No. 1, but he’s a solid corner and he does things the right way. I know he was their nickel or dime corner in Arizona.
“But he still did things that we look at and say, ‘That will fit us.’ We’re comfortable with that.”
The rumblings around the league last season were that Cason had lost a step – a perception that was not helped by his inability to outrun Newton to the end zone.
Cason said reports of his diminished speed have been greatly exaggerated.
“I was running around (Newton). He’s so long, he got his arms around me,” Cason said. “Give me five more yards, I would have had him.”
“And you know,” Cason added, “Cam isn’t a slow guy.”
3 Extra Points
• Free agent safety Thomas DeCoud arrives in Charlotte on Sunday for a two-day visit with the Panthers. DeCoud, a Pro Bowler with Atlanta two years ago, struggled with the rest of the Falcons’ defense in 2013. But DeCoud – like newcomer Roman Harper – has a vast knowledge of the NFC South. Worst-case scenario, DeCoud would be a proven backup if Charles Godfrey recovers from Achilles surgery and agrees to restructure his deal.
• The Panthers are in contract talks with defensive tackle Colin Cole, a free agent who essentially came off his couch to start 13 games last year for the league’s top-ranked defense. Cole, 33, who made the veteran minimum salary of $840,000 in his first season with Carolina, isn’t a guy who’s going to fill up a stat sheet. But at 6-2 and 335 pounds, he is a space-eater who played well in 2013 after being out of football for two years.
• Steve Smith might be a Baltimore Raven, but he’s still an involved member of the Charlotte community – and hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Smith’s foundation is sponsoring a Memorial Day road race at the Siskey YMCA in Matthews called ... the Lace Up Son 5K. Smith, cut last month after 13 seasons with the Panthers, is expected to attend the May 26 race to meet runners, sign autographs and perhaps extend an “Ice up, son” greeting to anyone unfortunate enough to have pulled a muscle.