CHARLOTTE — A.J. Bouye hasn't even turned 30 yet. He'll do that 22 days from now during training camp.
But the veteran cornerback aged considerably in the 22 days between the day he agreed to terms with the Panthers (April 7) and the day they drafted cornerback Jaycee Horn in the first round (April 29).
That's the day he went from an experienced and pretty good cornerback with a Pro Bowl on his own resume, to the official old guy in the room, the one the Panthers will count on to shepherd the new bright shining light at the position.
"I realized when I was visiting teams this offseason that that label was starting to be put on me," Bouye said of being considered a wise elder. "I could have fought it. A few years ago I probably would have.
"But I also realize I'm not going to be in the league 20 years, so part of what I have to do is help the next generation of guys be ready, the same way guys helped me when I was young."
The Panthers were a little bit desperate for help when they got Bouye aboard. They had one starting-caliber corner in Donte Jackson, and if Bouye's arrival was the last of the key additions to the secondary, they'd have still been better than they were a year ago. He was a second-team All-Pro pick in 2017, so it hasn't been that long since he was considered one of the best cover men in the league.
The addition of Horn meant that Bouye would need to adjust the role he planned to play on the field. While he's had success playing outside, he's smart enough to play in the slot, where they could maximize the skills of Jackson and Horn. That's not an inconsequential move. While the slot corner is often considered the "third guy," it's not nearly the third-most-complicated role to play.
"I didn't know this was going to be the deal when I came here," Bouye said. "Of course, when I visited, I didn't know who they were going to draft. Once they drafted Jaycee, I pretty much knew."
But his adjustments go beyond playing a slightly different position. Bouye has also taken on the role of teacher, and the Panthers have been extremely pleased with how quickly he's taken to that part of the job.
"A.J. Bouye, I'm so impressed with him," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said during minicamp. "He's played a long time, but he comes in with a humility to want to learn our system."
Coaches talk up players all the time. There was a different tone when Rhule dished out that particular bit of praise, however, a note of something approaching surprise, but more of genuine respect, almost a peer-level understanding. Bouye gets it, and realizing that they found a guy that gets it makes the reconstruction of the secondary that much easier.
That kind of maturity isn't the kind of thing you can take for granted. Not every player reaches that point.
But Bouye is at peace with the fact he's in a bit of a transitional phase in his career, and seems to relish it, knowing that Horn is the kind of pupil that can reflect well on those who teach him.
"For good or bad, you're going to have a legacy in this league," Bouye said. "I had to decide what mine was going to be.
"I want to be the guy who is watching in five years, and sees an All-Pro cornerback out there, collecting all those honors. He can do that. If I can do anything to help him get there, that's my job now."
Less accomplished players settle into such roles all the time. For the Panthers, finding one who can still play and also be trusted to lead, was a huge step for their defense.
View photos of cornerback A.J. Bouye through the years with Houston, Jacksonville and Denver.