Scott Fowler

The next Carolina Panthers breakout star will be....

Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry (24) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) on Dec. 24, 2016. Jones gained 60 receiving yards during the game after catching passes for 300 yards the first time the two teams played.
Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry (24) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) on Dec. 24, 2016. Jones gained 60 receiving yards during the game after catching passes for 300 yards the first time the two teams played. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

When you watch the teams still remaining in the NFL playoffs, you will notice they each boast a nucleus of stars that the rest of the players orbit around.

The Carolina Panthers have their own version of that star system. Quarterback Cam Newton, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, tight end Greg Olsen and a handful of others lead the way.

Let me let you in on a little secret as to who the next breakout Panthers star is going to be: Cornerback James Bradberry.

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Yes, the quiet cornerback from the small school is going to make it big. I am convinced of that after watching Bradberry’s rookie season, in which he improved dramatically from the start of September to the beginning of January.

Bradberry wears Josh Norman’s old No. 24, but the two couldn’t have more different personalities. Norman is an irrepressible, quick-fuse ham – a flamboyant frontman who is the closest thing the Panthers have ever employed to Deion Sanders. Bradberry is a bass player, a sideman happy to allow others to take the spotlight while maintaining his own steady rhythm.

But on the field, I see a lot of similarities. Bradberry has long arms like Norman. He will sacrifice his body to offer run support on sweeps like Norman. And, most importantly, he can cover big-time receivers without help like Norman.

I am not saying Bradberry is as good as Norman – who signed a monster deal with Washington last April after Carolina controversially rescinded his franchise tag.

But I think one day Bradberry could be.

Work in progress

Bradberry knows he’s not close to there yet, which is one reason I am betting on him. He was a first-day starter for Carolina as a rookie and he looked a little lost at the beginning.

“Initially, things were happening so fast,” Bradberry said. “And they hit a lot harder too in the NFL. But you get used to that.”

Initially, things were happening so fast. And they hit a lot harder too in the NFL. But you get used to that.

Panthers cornerback James Bradberry.

Carolina’s pass defense plummeted into “total embarrassment” territory in the middle of the season, but that wasn’t Bradberry’s fault. He injured his toe on the very first series in the first game against Atlanta – the one in which Julio Jones went for a staggering 300 receiving yards and Matt Ryan threw for 503. He didn’t play at all when Drew Brees lit up Carolina for 465 passing yards two weeks later.

Bradberry said he had been told that every NFL player sustains some type of injury every single year, but had a hard time understanding that until it happened to him.

“I had been told, ‘You are going to get an injury,’ ” he recalled. “But I didn’t really believe that at first. I didn’t really have injuries that made me miss games in college (at Samford). That’s one thing that threw me off – I got injured.”

Steady improvement

But when Bradberry returned for the final half of the season, he steadily got better (as did fellow rookie Daryl Worley). By the end, the Panthers were paying Bradberry the ultimate compliment – often letting him go one-on-one for several plays at a time against the other team’s top receiver.

Said Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman in his postseason press conference: “You guys noticed at the end of the year, we took James, matched him up on (Julio Jones), matched him up on (Mike Evans), and he more than held his own. This is a rookie, playing against veteran wide (receivers).”

Bradberry believes one place he can improve is in his number of interceptions. He had a modest two as a rookie – one in the second game of the year vs. San Francisco, and the other in the final game of the year at Tampa Bay.

Bradberry ended the season so impressively that the analytics website Pro Football Focus said he had a better year than Norman himself. PFF ranked Bradberry No. 19 in its “Top 25 under 25.” Bradberry ranked ahead of Jadeveon Clowney on that list among many others (although he was one spot behind Panthers teammate Trai Turner, an offensive lineman).

It wasn’t perfect by any means. Bradberry had played beautifully in Carolina’s season finale against Tampa Bay – making an acrobatic interception early and a stellar pass breakup later – before Evans beat him from 10 yards out for the game’s deciding touchdown.

“I was playing pretty good,” Bradberry said wryly, “until I got scored on at the end.”

A workmanlike progression

But the late-season results were generally very good for the workmanlike Bradberry, who was famously fixing a toilet at his house (under orders from his mother, a pastor) when the Panthers drafted him in the second round in April.

Pro Football Focus recently ranked Bradberry No. 19 in its list of the top 25 NFL players under 25. Odell Beckham was No. 1.

Bradberry – with some help – held Jones to a fifth of his receiving yards total the second time around, as Jones had a modest 60 yards receiving. Bradberry said that Jones and Evans were the two most difficult guys to cover he faced all season, but that he can’t wait to get to cover the two of them twice a season in NFC South matchups.

“They’re pretty equal,” Bradberry said, “but they are different. Mike Evans – his arms are a lot longer. He’s very crafty too, and knows how to move and torque his body. Julio – he’s just explosive off the line. It’s kind of hard to get a jam on him because he’s so strong as well. But I’m looking forward to it.”

I am too, because I think Bradberry can be very special.

Carolina Panthers rookie CB James Bradberry demonstrates Charles Tillman's "Peanut punch."

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