If his hits at the college level are any indication, Panthers safety Dean Marlowe is ready to be a big hitter in the NFL.
Marlowe, an undrafted rookie out of James Madison, was thrown out of three games last season because of big or late hits. The Panthers coaches aren’t endorsing late hits, but they like the physicality Marlowe showed on tape and this past weekend at rookie minicamp.
“We’ll be OK with that, trust me,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We’re talking about identity. One of the things that we try to preach is that our (defensive backs) will be physical guys. That’s one of the things that we really like about him.”
Marlowe offers ideal size for a safety at 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, and he has the physicality to back it up. First he was tossed out of the Dukes’ game against Albany for a targeting penalty that he still disputes.
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The following week against Towson, Marlowe led with his helmet against a defenseless receiver across the middle of the field. He got a third ejection against Richmond later in the year.
He believes none of the three hits would be fine-worthy in the NFL.
“No, I don’t think so,” Marlowe said, “because we have better refs here.”
Despite not being in pads at last weekend’s rookie minicamp, Marlowe still brought his brand of defense to the Panthers’ practice field. He collided with receiver Damiere Byrd on a passing play that sent both to the ground.
“We love his size and physicality, and you saw the play he made today,” Rivera said after practice Saturday. “He shouldn’t have hit the kid and I’m screaming at him because he’s going to get me in trouble.”
The Panthers signed Marlowe as a priority free agent at the end of the draft. He was one of 10 undrafted players Carolina signed after the seven rounds were complete.
Marlowe had 12 interceptions in his career at James Madison, including four in his final season. He had an average combine performance and was disappointed he didn’t get picked up in one of the final two rounds of the draft.
At the top of the seventh round, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called Marlowe to court him to Carolina. Marlowe estimated 15 teams showed interest in him as a free agent, but he believed his best opportunity was with the Panthers.
“My agent told me it’d be a great opportunity to learn from a great coordinator, great head coach and great defensive backs coach in Coach (Steve) Wilks,” Marlowe said. “I saw that they had veterans like Roman Harper that I could learn from and pick up the speed of the game. I’m a smart guy. I know the game and I know it well. I can develop a lot from these guys.”
Both Marlowe and Rivera called the rookie a “big fish in a small pond” at James Madison, and that’s both good and bad. Marlowe stood out against lesser competition, but his technique isn’t refined because of that.
Wilks noticed in the first session of Friday’s practice that Marlowe was backpedaling in a straight line at his free safety position. He pointed it out on film to Rivera that night, and the head coach saw it right away at the start of Saturday’s practice.
As a free safety, Marlowe has to open up his hips as he backpedals and start to run almost sideways so he can keep up with elite NFL receivers.
“If you think you can stay in a backpedal against some of these guys, they’re going to run right by you,” Rivera said. “Those are the little things he’s going to have to learn to be a good player.”
It’s a game of angles and inches, Wilks told Marlowe regularly last weekend, but Marlowe has what the Panthers like in a defensive back. And just like safety Robert Lester and cornerback Melvin White two years ago, Marlowe has a chance to make the final roster as an undrafted rookie because of how well he fits.
“The biggest thing that we look for in DBs,” Wilks said, “we look for guys who are smart, physical, make tackles and make plays on the ball. And he fits that mold.
“We’re going to play the best guys. Look at Melvin White and Robert Lester, two undrafted free agent guys that we brought in and helped us win games. To say does he have a chance, of course he does.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9