Carolina Panthers

As Panthers shape secondary, Rivera hints that young players must step up

Panthers Rivera talks about competition for jobs in the secondary

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera discusses the role players such as Rashaan Gaulden, Da'Norris Searcy, and Colin Jones will have in the team's secondary.
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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera discusses the role players such as Rashaan Gaulden, Da'Norris Searcy, and Colin Jones will have in the team's secondary.

Hearing all of the plans the Carolina Panthers have for second-year safety Rashaan Gaulden might make a person’s head spin.

Big nickel cornerback. Small nickel cornerback. Free safety. Backup box safety.

During his press conference with general manager Marty Hurney on Wednesday, head coach Ron Rivera said he wants Gaulden to fit somewhere. And that means trying a little of everything.

“The guy who can give you the versatility is probably going to be Rashaan, and we have to give him every opportunity to find out if (big nickel) is a home place for him,” said Rivera, who added that Gaulden will also compete for the vacant starting free safety job — but needs to be able to plug in anywhere.

That will likely be just fine with Gaulden. He played nearly every defensive back position while in college at Tennessee before he was drafted by the Panthers in the third round last spring. But then, he was stashed on the roster through most of the 2018 season. Rivera maintained that Gaulden was “re-learning” the traditional safety spot.

The Panthers will return three of the four starting positions in the secondary in 2019 (three of five total), a bit of a rarity considering the upheaval their secondary has undergone over the last eight years. Rivera has never had the same starting secondary as the year prior in his tenure as head coach.

Three-year starting cornerback James Bradberry will enter his contract season this fall, joined by starter Donte Jackson, who is looking to build off an explosive rookie season. The Panthers also re-signed safety Eric Reid to a three-year deal this spring, with the expectation that he will not only be an anchor in the secondary but in the locker room as well.

Safety Da’Norris Searcy suffered two concussions early last season, which forced him to spend most of the year on injured reserve. He will return in 2019, but it’s unclear where he will play with Reid on the field.

And the Panthers will get back two depth players in veteran cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Kevon Seymour, who both missed the 2018 season while on injured reserve. Cockrell broke his tibia and fibula in training camp, while Seymour had double-labrum repair. Both have been cleared for phase one of the Panthers’ offseason workout program, according to the team.

The continuity is there, and now, the group has a veteran coaching it, too, after Rivera hired longtime secondary coach Perry Fewell this offseason.

But still, Gaulden, and a few other young defensive backs, must fill glaring holes this spring within the Panthers’ secondary.

Rivera has some names in mind.

Third-year cornerback Corn Elder will be near the top of the mix at nickel, a package that may as well be the Panthers’ base defense because they’re in it so much. If the Panthers draft a nickel cornerback, he becomes Elder’s immediate competition. Gaulden might see some opportunities there as well.

Competing with Gaulden at free safety will likely be a draft pick, and, surprisingly, converted nickel cornerback Cole Luke.

As an undrafted free-agent signing in 2017, Luke was in the running to make the Panthers’ roster before hurting his achilles and spending the year on injured reserve.

Rivera said last season Luke learned a new position while on the practice squad.

“He’s a smart, headsy player,” said Rivera. “He played some corner, played some nickel for us. Last year we kept him on the practice squad, working at the safety position, and he’s shown some aptitude for it.”

None of these players have secondary job sewed up, however. Rivera wants to move players around a lot this spring and at training camp, forcing battles at vacant positions and even challenging starters to elevate.

“We’ve brought some competition in,” he said. “There are some guys who are going to compete and they’re going to push one another.”

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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