CHARLOTTE -- You could make a case that Richard Marshall has been the Carolina Panthers' hottest player on defense.
He's certainly the best one not starting.
Marshall, the second-year cornerback who comes in as part of the nickel package, continues to play at a level near the two veterans in front of him on the depth chart -- making him a bit of a luxury the Panthers are glad to have. They were especially appreciative last week, when his 73-yard interception return against San Francisco helped seal a rare win.
"He's got tremendous heart," coach John Fox said Wednesday. "He wants to get to the ball on every play, and most of the time he does get there. It's that that separates guys. I thought the week before, albeit a loss, he was all over the field against New Orleans, too."
Marshall mentioned after last week's game that he thought the 12-tackle performance against the Saints (he was one of the few bright spots) was better, as he wants to be known as more than simply a cover player.
"I hear a lot of media and a lot of guys say corners don't like to tackle," he said. "That may be true for some corners, but me, I like tackling, I like putting my nose in there and tackling. That's one of my strong points."
That's evident from the stats on defense and special teams. Although he plays roughly 40 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps, he's still ninth on the team with 42 tackles. He's also tied for second in passes broken up with six, and has three quarterback pressures.
But he's added to his value by becoming a phenomenal special-teamer. In just two seasons, Marshall's already in the top 20 on the team's all-time special teams tackle list with 30. He's put 16 on the board this year, and if he keeps his current pace and finishes with 21, it would be the third-best single-season total in franchise history (behind Andre Royal's 26 in 1996 and Rod Smart's 24 in 2002).
Underscoring that mark is he's put together such a resume' while being more than just a fill-in on defense. Of the 15 players in franchise history to record at least 16 special teams tackles in a season, only linebacker Brandon Short and safety Chad Cota played any appreciable roles on defense or offense, since the list is dominated by kicking-game-only guys like Karl Hankton, Dwight Stone, Michael Bates, Jarrod Cooper and Royal.
"You have no choice when you get put into that situation," Marshall said. "If you're not playing defense here you play a lot of special teams, and I want to help the team out any way I can, so if special teams is where I've got to help out, that's where I want to help out at."
But the Panthers know he's capable of much more, which puts them in an enviable position.
"He's a hard guy to keep off the field," Fox said.
Several scouts around the league have long suggested that the Panthers' trio of corners -- Marshall and starters Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble -- give them a nickel package and depth at the position like few teams in the league.
So while the team reaps the benefits, it means Marshall's a starting-caliber player without a starting job, and it's likely to stay that way for another year. Lucas is under contract through 2010, Gamble through 2008 and Marshall's rookie deal carries him through 2009. Since Gamble's still working off his first contract and Lucas is playing too well to cut for any perceived financial reasons, the most likely scenario is that all three are back for at least another year.
Marshall mostly shrugs the notion off as unimportant.
"I just know at some point in the game I'm going to get in the game, and when I do get in the game I've got to make a play," Marshall said. "I really don't look at it like I have to be a starter. I mean, I'm up there in interceptions with those guys, so I'm making plays, and I don't really care about starting. It's going to come down to a point where they're going to have to make a decision, and that's when I'll go forward."
Fox said he understands the competitive nature of players and pointed out Marshall's had to start 11 games the last two years when Gamble and Lucas have been hurt, or they opened games with all three on the field as they did last week.
"I think everybody that does this for the love of it wants to play, and Richard's no different," Fox said. "He wants to play. But he's not been a distraction or I don't think he's gotten frustrated with it entirely. In this league, there are so many multiple wideout sets, whether it's based on a team, first down, second down or guaranteed on third down, he is a starter.
"(The third corner) plays throughout the season probably more than one of your linebackers does in your base packages. So he's playing a lot of football for us. Regardless of whether you call him a starting left or right corner, he plays a lot."
And while many players might balk at making so many plays without the payoff of hearing their name during introductions, it's hard to know if it bothers Marshall. Instead, he talked at length about the instruction he's gotten from Lucas and Gamble, along with the lessons learned from safety Mike Minter a year ago.
His time will come, but he's not forcing the issue.
"To me, I'm on the team and I feel I'm in a good situation and I've got two older guys I can talk to and I can learn from," he said. "That's something a lot of guys don't have, they've got to go in and start right away.
"The pressure I put on me, I go in and play the same, but I'm behind two guys who have been in the league a while and they know what's going on."
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