There are a lot of tough jobs taken on by various Carolina Panthers.
Matt Kalil has to protect Cam Newton’s blind side against each team’s best pass rusher. Newton himself has to make the right snap decision and then throw the ball into a space the size of a basketball hoop. Graham Gano must make practically every field goal, every season.
But arguably the toughest job description comes when you are the Panthers’ No. 1 cornerback, a spot manned by third-year cornerback James Bradberry.
Because he plays in the NFC South, Bradberry has to go from Atlanta’s Julio Jones to Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans to New Orleans’ Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. every season — twice.
“You’re going to get targeted a lot, especially when you’re guarding the No. 1 receiver,” Bradberry said.
And Bradberry does get targeted, by some of the best quarterbacks in the game. Facing the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan twice a year is no easy task. And Bradberry has not made enough interceptions in his first two seasons (a modest two per year) to make quarterbacks worry too much about him burning them for a pick six if they keep throwing his way.
But Bradberry is still the best the Panthers have at cornerback — the No. 2 starting spot is a battle between Kevon Seymour and rookie Donte Jackson. And Bradberry’s determined to try to improve in Year 3.
Of course, that’s what everyone hoped last season — that Bradberry would take great strides from Year 1 to Year 2. It didn’t really happen.
“At times, you could see the progress,” Bradberry said. “But at times, you know, it was kind of a letdown. Being more consistent is my goal this year.”
The Panthers’ secondary problems certainly aren’t just Bradberry’s fault. In recent years, the team has made a concerted effort to spend heavily on a strong front seven on defense while not paying a lot of money on the back end (see Norman, Josh). So after the inevitable injury or two hits the team, Carolina is often left cobbling together a mixture of rookies and aging vets and hoping for the best. Often, the best isn’t what they get.
This is part of the reason that Pro Football Focus ranked the Panthers’ secondary 29th in the NFL just before training camps opened. Bradberry saw that number and didn’t like it.
“It’s pretty disrespectful,” Bradberry said. “That’s one of our goals this year, to be ranked higher. Get some respect around the league.”
Bradberry spent his summer enjoying himself and working out, sometimes in creative ways.
“I did yoga,” Bradberry said. “I cooked quite a bit. I started to swim a little bit.”
How far did he swim? “I tried to do a mile,” he said with a smile, “but I ended up only doing a quarter-mile. I didn’t realize how hard it was.”
As the Panthers prepare for their first exhibition game — Thursday at Buffalo — Bradberry will be thrown into the deep part of the pool once again. Although Carolina’s starters won’t play much, Bradberry likely will guard Bills wide receiver (and former teammate) Kelvin Benjamin on at least a few plays.
The Panthers are hopeful that this will be the year that Bradberry comes into his own while performing his difficult job.
“He’s got the right type of skill set,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s got good length and good size (at 6-1 and 212 pounds). He’s a physical corner who runs well. … And he’s going into his third year. Usually, this is when you see guys start to ascend.”