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Panthers thought ‘differently’ to build a plan at cornerback. That process isn’t over.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on his expectations for the future

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the potential for the offense, Julius Peppers' future.
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Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the potential for the offense, Julius Peppers' future.

The narrative is well known, by now.

The Carolina Panthers were left scrambling in the 2016 draft after former general manager Dave Gettleman let No. 1 cornerback Josh Norman walk that spring.

Gettleman later referred to selecting players in that draft as “shopping hungry” — the Panthers had to draft three corners that year.

Their second-round pick, James Bradberry, is the one who stuck. Two years later, he became the guy around whom the Panthers decided to build a foundation in their secondary. And now, he’s joined by promising young cornerback Donte Jackson.

It feels, for the first time since Norman’s exit, like the Panthers have stability at starting corner.

But to get to this point meant evaluating talent in a way they never had before.

Scouting James Bradberry

The Panthers didn’t necessarily think they would find a guy who could mirror Norman’s cocksure personality as they evaluated prospects ahead of the 2016 draft. That would come later.

But they knew he had to be physical.

After area scouts lauded Bradberry, a Samford cornerback, and he had a great week of Senior Bowl practices, former assistant general manager Brandon Beane and former defensive backs coach-turned defensive coordinator Steve Wilks paid him a visit in Alabama.

Wilks worked Bradberry out, acting as a receiver while Bradberry went through his techniques. By the end of the session, Wilks had the beginnings of several large bruises blossoming across his chest, stomach and shoulders.

“We were working on press-technique stuff. ... I was just hitting him in his chest as hard as I could,” Bradberry said earlier this year, laughing. “I didn’t meant to hurt him. It was a good workout though. ... I like to press. I like to put my hands on receivers. So when he gave me the opportunity to do it, I had to show him I was physical.

“I was going to give him my all. He told me to hit him in the chest, so I hit him in the chest. ... I guess I left an ‘impression’ on him, to say the least.”

Carolina drafted Bradberry in the second round of the 2016 draft. Now in his third season, he has improved each year and become a player whom the Panthers count on.

Yet hitting the mark on Bradberry was only one piece of the defensive backfield puzzle.

Daryl Worley, the starting cornerback drafted a round after Bradberry, never really panned out. The two had too similar of skill sets, and teams threw mismatches at Worley via Nos. 2 and 3 receiver. Carolina traded Worley to Philadelphia, where he was released after an arrest. He now plays for Oakland.

So in spring of 2018, the Panthers needed to find Bradberry’s complement. And to do so, they started approaching that word, “complement,” differently.

Drafting Donte Jackson

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson has proved that he can be a great asset alongside James Bradberry. Jeff Siner TNS

Gettleman had patterns in his drafting and evaluation process while with the Panthers. His skill players had to be a certain height, with a certain arm length (leading to the failed experiment of receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess). His linemen had to be “hog-mollies.”

And his outside cornerbacks had to have long arms, and long frames.

Donte Jackson, Carolina’s starting cornerback opposite Bradberry, is not that player. He’s smaller, at 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds, but lightning-fast with good ball skills and tenacious tackling ability.

It’s hard to imaging Gettleman would’ve tabbed Jackson as a fit for Panthers — or maybe he would have considered Jackson solely as a slot cornerback.

But as general manager Marty Hurney and Rivera evaluated what they wanted their secondary to look like after Worley’s exit, they decided to do things differently.

“I think in talking with Marty, we put a premium on a different type of player than we’ve ever had. And that premium (meant) taking a look at Donte,” Rivera said earlier this season. “We’ve never had a corner like that.”

Rivera and Hurney wanted their corners to complement each other, because so much of the league has moved toward speed at the No. 2 receiver position and with pass-catching running backs who love to play the edges of the field.

Jackson was perhaps a little overlooked in the 2017 draft because of his size, despite a stellar collegiate career at LSU.

Still, Rivera feared they wouldn’t be able to get him as the picks ticked by in the second round. Carolina selected 55th.

“Marty drove me nuts during the draft because that’s the guy we targeted. But he elected to stand pat, and I was getting nervous as hell,” Rivera said, laughing. “ And we were able to get him, and we got him. He was the target. For him to be there, I was honestly shocked. But that was one of the things that really happened. We targeted a guy who was different for the first time.”

Jackson and Bradberry work well together in complement. While Bradberry is quiet, and has grown more confident with time, Jackson is chatty and oozes self-assurance that he matches with his on-field play.

And as a tandem, the matchups they can take on are ideal. Bradberry plays against the bigger, more physical wide receivers while Jackson’s speed is a valuable asset on the other side.

The two together could be the future at cornerback. But there are still questions about the unit as a whole.

The Observer is continuing to assess the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Next up: Cornerbacks.

Three things to know

Depth is the question.

There is a real chance Carolina’s cornerbacks are the best they’ve been in years, and certainly since Norman left. But behind Bradberry and Jackson, there are questions. Outside cornerbacks Kevon Seymour and Ross Cockrell were supposed to back up Bradberry and Jackson this season, but both spent the year on injured reserve.

The nickel could go younger, faster.

This is another huge question mark for Carolina, which uses its nickel package often and has started Captain Munnerlyn there for the last two seasons. But the Panthers have made it clear that they want to get younger and faster on defense, so that might mean Munnerlyn is phased out. So, what then? Cornerback Corn Elder, in his third year in 2019, hasn’t gotten to show what he can do at nickel, and was beaten badly in his debut at outside corner this season. The Panthers might turn to free agency or the draft to infuse speed, especially as the rest of the NFC South puts faster receivers in the slot.

A new coach.

This week, the Panthers hired longtime defensive backs coach Perry Fewell to coach their secondary, with an emphasis on cornerbacks and overall defensive help. Fewell has a strong resume at the position for over 30 years, and so marrying his knowledge with the youth of Jackson and the development of Bradberry will be crucial this season — and could help the two cornerbacks take the next step.

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This is a 2018 photo of Perry Fewell of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL football team. This image reflects the Jacksonville Jaguars active roster as of Wednesday, May 23, 2018 when this image was taken. (AP Photo) AP

On the roster

James Bradberry: Bradberry finished the year with 70 tackles, 15 pass breakups, an interception and a sack. He faced a brutal slate of receivers in the first 10 games — including Mike Evans, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown. He fared well in the beginning of the season but was inconsistent in the middle stretch before finishing strong. Bradberry will be in a contract year in 2019.

Donte Jackson: A spark-plug out of LSU, Jackson showed his speed and tenacity with three interceptions in the first three games.

Captain Munnerlyn: Munnerlyn struggled in coverage at times in 2018, and it’s possible he becomes a tough decision in 2019. Munnerlyn, 30, is a leader in the locker room, but the Panthers have stated they want to get younger and faster on defense.

Also: Seymour and Cockrell both spent 2018 on injured reserve. Seymour had to have double labrum surgery after playing injured in the preseason, but was around the Panthers’ facilities near the end of the season for treatment and rehabilitation. Cockrell, if he can get back to full health, will be a valuable veteran depth piece who could spell either Jackson or Bradberry, if needed, and who has been a huge asset in the film room even while hurt, according to teammates.

Free agent possibilities

Bryce Callahan, Chicago Bears: Callahan has consistently improved since his rookie season and started 2018 well, but broke a bone in his foot in early December. If Chicago doesn’t make him a priority in free agency, he could give the Panthers a boost at nickel.

Steven Nelson, Kansas City Chiefs: Pulling from the “Andy Reid” tree might appeal to head coach Ron Rivera, and Nelson is a solid cornerback for the Chiefs. He can play in the slot and on the outside and has had success in both spots. The Panthers emphasize position flexibility.

Tyrann Mathieu, Houston Texans: Mathieu’s price for a longer deal might be too much for Carolina, but he can play in the slot, on the outside and at safety. And wouldn’t it be exciting to see Mathieu join other former LSU, “Defensive Back University” players Jackson and Eric Reid in the Panthers’ secondary?

Draft possibilities

Julian Love, Notre Dame: Love has great speed but is on the slighter side. That might make him a great fit in the slot in Carolina, where he would match up with shiftier, quicker receivers. Love had 16 pass breakups in 2018.

Kendall Sheffield, Ohio State: Could Sheffield play slot cornerback in the NFL? At 6-feet tall, he is lightning-fast. He had seven tackles and two pass breakups in the Rose Bowl this season.

Myles Bryant, Washington: Bryant is just 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, but doesn’t play like it — whether it’s against the run or in coverage. “The Draft Network” says Bryant “can make tackles at warp speed with flexibility and change of direction prowess.”

The bottom line

If Carolina is serious about wanting to get younger and faster on defense, the next step to take at cornerback is at nickel. They’ll also need to figure out their depth behind Jackson and Bradberry, and get their two starters to take the next step developmentally.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.

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