Scott Fowler

Star in the making? Why Panthers teammates say this defender will be ‘the real deal’

It was on the first day of practice when Panthers cornerback James Bradberry showed how different Year Two really could be for him.

As quarterback Cam Newton dropped back and looked right, Bradberry backpedaled for a second and then broke hard toward the spot where he thought the ball would be thrown. By the time the ball was in the air, Bradberry had sliced in front of target Russell Shepard and intercepted the pass with ease.

The pickoff came despite Bradberry continuing to wear a precautionary cast on his fractured left wrist. In one way, it looked familiar: the most famous interception in Panthers training camp history came when No. 24 picked off No. 1.

That interception and showboating return in 2015, of course, resulted in a fight between Newton and the No. 24 jersey’s previous occupant – Josh Norman. The aftermath of this pick, though, was nothing like that one. This time Bradberry was quickly tackled and went on his way, with no interaction with Newton at all.

The play spoke to why I believe Bradberry will be the Panthers’ next breakout star. I wrote that six months ago and continue to believe it after watching Bradberry’s first week of training camp. Bradberry, as fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said a few days ago, “will definitely be the real deal.”

“He is big,” Munnerlyn said. “He is physical. He knows how to cover. And he can go get the ball.”

The Panthers’ second-round draft pick a year ago, Bradberry was forced into the starting lineup immediately along with fellow rookie Daryl Worley after former Carolina GM Dave Gettleman made the mistake of rescinding Norman’s franchise tag and allowing him to leave the team in April 2016 with no compensation.

Bradberry took some lumps. “I feel a lot better than I did last year,” Bradberry said Friday. “I have a lot more knowledge on the system that we run.”

The two games that Panthers fans cringe about most last year were when Julio Jones went for an astounding 300 receiving yards for Atlanta in one game –the most ever allowed by the Panthers – and Drew Brees threw for 465 yards for New Orleans two weeks later. Bradberry got hurt early in the first game and didn’t play in the second, which showed the Panthers how much their secondary would struggle without him in there at full speed.

By the end of the season, Bradberry was playing much better but still allowing some big plays. The season finale against Tampa Bay was somewhat typical: Bradberry matched up well against Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, making a fine interception early and then a great pass breakup later. But then he allowed Evans to beat him on a 10-yard TD pass for the game-winning score.

So Bradberry is no Norman yet, and in terms of flamboyance he never will be. But the cornerback from Samford has clearly established him as Carolina’s No. 1 cornerback, with Worley a solid No. 2.

Coach Ron Rivera, asked Saturday if it had been a good or bad thing for Bradberry and Worley to both be rookie starters last season, said: “Based on how the season ended, I’d say it was a bad thing. But looking forward, you could say it’s a good thing, because they’ve gotten an awful lot of experience. And you watch them: They don’t practice like second-year guys. They practice like pros.”

Said safety Mike Adams of Bradberry Saturday: “He’s a quiet assassin… He doesn’t talk much, but it’s amazing how smart he is.”

Bradberry will have no shortage of challenges in the pass-first NFC South: Jones, Evans and old teammate Ted Ginn Jr. (now with New Orleans) are all on his radar. The wrist should not be a factor – he was injured in June in a freak collision with linebacker Luke Kuechly. Bradberry said of Kuechly after the incident: “He just apologized a lot. He wasn’t even supposed to be there, but that’s Luke – just making a play.”

Bradberry no longer wears the thick cast he had to sport for a few weeks, which his teammate signed. He has kept it in his locker, he said, as a good-luck charm.

Luck will not be a factor this season for Bradberry, though. His innate skills will be. And I think they will be on full display, for Bradberry has a chance to be very good.