SPARTANBURG, S.C. — When you play in a division with Drew Brees, Sean Payton, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, the decision to possibly start two rookie cornerbacks (with a third getting a lot of sub-package snaps) could be viewed high on the, “How crazy is your general manager?” scale.
Of course, sitting in his office at Wofford College, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman had more of a “I’ve been around the block a few times, I know exactly what I’m doing, thank you very much” look on his face.
“People are focusing all on this, like the world falling down,” says Gettleman. “The world isn’t falling down. We believe in our front, we believe we’re going to get pressure, we were fifth or sixth in pressures last year. I’ve done studies and it’s difficult to throw the ball from his back, so I figured that out. I’m not trying to be a smart ass. They’re talented kids. They’re going to make mistakes, we know that. But they’re talented enough to play in the league.”
Those kids would be the Panthers’ cornerbacks taken in the 2016 draft: James Bradberry (second round), Darryl Worley (third) and Zack Sanchez (fifth).
“To this point, they’ve shown it’s not too big for them: I haven’t seen the brook trout look on any one of the three yet,” says Gettleman, using one of his well-worn phrases that means they haven’t looked confused. “There isn’t a guy between the white lines that isn’t human and doesn’t make mistakes. And these three kids have the skills, demeanor and all three are smart and instinctive guys. They have not disappointed at all since we brought them in here. They’ve all had picks and pass breakups, going up against Cam [Newton, [Derek Anderson], Kelvin [Benjamin], Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr. … it’s not like they’re working against Flotsam and Jetsam. They’re holding their own.”
Gettleman also pointed out that Bene Benwikere is off PUP and active, and former street free agent Robert McClain is back after helping the Panthers to the Super Bowl. “Before everyone says we’re starting two rookie corners, you don’t know that yet,” Gettleman says.
Of course, the Panthers are in this position by their own doing when Gettleman decided to pull the franchise tag from All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, who quickly signed a megadeal with Washington.
“At the end of the day, the intention was to tag him and try to get a deal done,” says Gettleman. “And after two lengthy conversations I realized we weren’t getting a deal done. There was no way. The more I kept thinking about what we could do with that $14.5 million back in our pockets and, I like to think people think I’m not a moron, it was a corner-heavy draft [I made the decision]. There were all shapes and sizes of corner all the way through the draft. It was a hell of a draft for corners. We’re intentional and methodical about what we do, and I kept going back and back at the long-term planning with our free agents coming up, identifying the core on the interior and the moving parts outside, and you can’t sign them all, it’s not easy. You figured out I’m not worried about self preservation. I’m really not.”
The Panthers have yet to play any games, there hasn’t been much live tackling, and the rookie cornerbacks are sure to have their ups and downs like every rookie, but Gettleman didn’t seem to be just blowing smoke. All three of them looked the part in practices, challenging receivers and getting their hands on balls. The first-team defense kept Newton and Anderson without a completion on the first six attempts in one 11-on-11 period. And there didn’t seem to be any glaring blown coverages.
“It’s going very well, it really is,” says coach Ron Rivera. “I’m not apprehensive [about the situation] because [in the past] we’ve had to go with a rookie quarterback, a rookie middle linebacker, and I’ve always been with teams that put rookies on the field. It’s all part of the challenge of coaching and of having the football team that we’re having to develop. Part of that development is playing young guys. These guys just happen to be young guys that we’re going to play.”
Other training camp observations
• The Panthers are one of the few NFL teams (maybe the only one) not to use blaring music during competitive periods. It does, however, make it much easier to hear the check game that goes on between Newton, center Ryan Kalil and linebacker Luke Kuechly. It’s a rare treat these days at NFL practices.
• Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL, is having his reps monitored, but the Panthers are excited to have their huge outside receiver back after he caught 73 passes as a rookie in 2014. He has made several highlight-reel catches, including one over the top of Kurt Coleman and ahead of a cornerback. Benjamin caught it and did a front roll on the way down. After making everyone hold their breath, Benjamin had no problems physically making the catch. As one Panther said, “His strike zone is ridiculous.”
• Darryl Williams, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2015, has continued to make progress and is competing with Mike Remmers for the right tackle spot. So far the edge seems to be with Remmers heading into the games.
• Coaches have raved about the performance so far of safety Tre Boston, who can break up passes with his hands and his body. He seems to be replacing some of the swagger and attitude that left with Josh Norman.
• Tight end Scott Simonson, who is returning from a shoulder injury, has really stood out not only as a blocking tight end but as a capable receiver. He’s going to get some playing time this year.
• Jeremy Cash has been a pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent. The Panthers are deep at linebacker, but they might have to find a way to make room for Cash.
• Right guard Trai Turner, who deservedly went to the Pro Bowl last year, isn’t satisfied and continues to get better and better. He’s on the precipice of being a perennial All-Pro, judging by his dominating reps in one-on-ones.
• Rivera, who doesn’t like to get on his players, halted practice on Monday and called all his players in. He proceeded to colorfully chew them out. Rivera later said it was because the younger players didn’t know what they were doing and he was sick of it.
• After dealing with a torn labrum last season, DE Ryan Delaire is pushing for time as a situational pass rusher. He’s very shifty and has developed some nice counter moves.
• Center/guard Reese Dismukes, a practice squad player last year, showed he should get a chance to stick around when he got playing time in place of Kalil, who sat out most of Monday’s practice. Physically, the two are almost carbon copies. Wouldn’t be surprising to see journeyman Gino Gradkowski as the odd-man out.
• Newton had a little fun with ace Charlotte Observer beat man Joe Person at one point between drills on Sunday. Apparently Newton took some playful exception to Person writing that the rookie cornerbacks had their moments against the franchise quarterback. (Newton should love this column.)
• Wofford College, the Panthers’ summer home for all 22 years of their existence, is a great setting for training camp, with fans having easy access for viewing practice on a hill, and for getting autographs. The college has made steady facility improvements and is now truly a top-notch place for an NFL team to prepare.
Buzzing: Running back Cameron Artis-Payne
Artis-Payne popped in shells during minicamp, and putting on pads has only increased the excitement about the second-year back. He hit on a couple big runs in the intrasquad scrimmage and continued that in practice by looking smooth, quick and decisive running the ball and catching it. It seems to be a situation where after having to think a lot as a rookie, Artis-Payne is quicker now that his mind is now free and has made him quicker.
Five questions with linebacker Thomas Davis
Q1: As the union rep for the Panthers, what’s your biggest concern about the NFL today?
TD: For me, I feel like we’re definitely heading in the right direction, but for all of us players, it’s the whole disciplinary system and the structure of it. You look at the whole system and who you have to appeal to, I think that’s one of the sticking points for players right now. We feel like someone else should have control over that. I think in the long run, it will actually end up helping the commissioner out if he decides to relinquish those controls because you have so many people that judge him based on those things. Just or unjust, you just know that’s the way it is. If that whole setup was changed, I think it would definitely put us in the direction we’re trying to head. We have mutual arbitration in some things. We just feel like that’s something that should be there for all offenses.
Q2: Would most players agree with that, or would they think financial concerns are bigger?
TD: I think it’s one of the biggest concerns. I don’t think that guys really have an issue with the way that we’re being paid right now. Maybe one thing that probably would be a real stickler for guys would be the guaranteed contracts. When you look at other sports and the way they’re being paid and the way things are set up, everybody else has guaranteed contracts but NFL players. I think that’s one of the things that guys might point to.
Q3: Do you think the players would have the stomach for a work stoppage to affect change in those areas?
TD: Right now we’re totally focused on having labor peace, and hopefully we can accomplish that and get to that point to where both sides can sit down and come to an agreement that is going to be good for the league and players long-term. That’s where the focus is right now. You don’t want to go into a potential discussion thinking, “We’re looking for a lockout” or “We’re looking for a strike.” It’s something where you want to have peace but you want to make sure it’s something that works for both sides.
Q4: You’ve won the Walter Payton Award as the NFL's Man of the Year, your foundation does terrific work and you have close ties to the community here in Charlotte. How concerned are you about the recent troubles in this country?
TD: It's very discouraging because with everything that's going on, I think it creates an image that is not 100% true on both sides. You have certain people that are being depicted a certain way, and then you have the law enforcement community that is being depicted a certain way. I think it’s unfair because not all of them are that way. Not all of them are good cops, not all of them are bad cops, but I think that the same time we have to realize that there is an issue that is going on, and all situations can’t be addressed the same way.
Q5: Given your connection to the community, might we see your Defending Dreams Foundation do some community outreach in this area?
TD: No question. We’ve definitely put some thought into it, whether it’s teaming up with the local law enforcement to try to spread the word that even though there are certain situations that are going on around the world, we work hand in hand with these guys and we know what kind of officers they are. I think it’s very important right now with the world and the day and age that we live in that we use our influence in a positive way. We have a voice, we have an opportunity to make positive change, and it’s important for us to take advantage of that. This off-season I was able to do a ride-along with a local law enforcement agent and I had a great time. I got to experience and witness some of the things that they face on a day-to-day basis, and they don’t have an easy job. It’s a very difficult job, and a lot of the decisions they have to make are split-second decisions, and they’re being judged extremely hard right now, and even harder right now because the way things have gone on around the world. But we have to understand that not all officers are the same. That’s one thing I hope people are starting to realize.