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Andre Roberts can still move

Andre Roberts

CHARLOTTE — There may be a ceiling on how much you can tell about a football team when players are in shorts.

But it's clear that Andre Roberts can still move.

Then again, he's had a lot of practice at it lately.

The Panthers' new 34-year-old wide receiver has been one of the eye-openers of OTAs; as you can tell he still has the kind of long speed that has made him one of the league's most dangerous returners. He's earned All-Pro honors three of the past four years, so it's not like he's slowing down.

"Every year, it doesn't matter," Roberts replied when asked if he has to remind people he can still run. "Every year I try to let it be known; when I get the ball in my hands I have an opportunity to score. Some teams will try me and they figure it out. Some teams keep the ball away.

"I think especially at my age now, they think I might be slowing down, but not quite. Not quite."

That was evident last year with the Chargers, when he took a kickoff back 101 yards for a touchdown.

And that's why veteran special teams coach Chris Tabor rejects the thesis of a question when it's couched in terms of Roberts being 34.

"The mistake you're making is you stereotype him based on age," Tabor said. "You used the category. Don't put the player in the category."

Tabor used to work in Cleveland, where he'd eat lunch and talk baseball with Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, the former baseball executive. So it's not a coincidence that Tabor loves the book and movie "Moneyball" (in which Jonah Hill played DePodesta), and he watched it again recently. So Tabor gets the idea of undervalued commodities, and in many ways, that's what Roberts represents.

The Panthers were looking for a returner. They thought they might draft one. Instead, they got one of the best in the league in free agency after the draft.

"Teams discard guys because of certain characteristics," Tabor said. "They don't look right, don't fit the right mold, vs. what the tape says. The tape still says that he (Roberts) can run. And he's still explosive. He's been the Pro Bowler three of the last four years. It's a credit to him how he's taken care of his body and how he's trained.

"Never thought about him at a certain age, just think about the player you see. His Chargers tape is really good; you can see the explosiveness in him, all those things. He's still a good player."

The numbers back that up. Roberts led the league with 1,010 kickoff return yards last season, and his 8,578 combined return yards (kickoff and punt) are the most of any player in the league since 2010.

That's why it's a little strange that he's moved around so much.

Originally a third-round pick of the Cardinals, he spent his first four years in the desert, before a two-year stint in Washington. Since then, was on six teams in the last six seasons (the Lions, Falcons, Jets, Bills, Texans, and Chargers), so he has learned another one of the secrets of being an NFL veteran.

"I rent everywhere I go," Roberts said with a knowing nod. "I own a place in Virginia and Arizona, and that's kind of where I stay during the offseason. But it is what it is.

"There's ebbs and flows in life, regardless whether you're playing football or anything else. You just go with the flow."

Roberts was born into a military family, so the constant moving is nothing new for him (though his parents have settled in Columbia, S.C., and remain there). But when you ask him to run down the places he's lived, it's helpful if you both take a deep breath.

"Born in Alaska, lived there for two, then lived in Florida for four," he began. "Then moved to South Carolina. In middle school, moved to St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to live with my grandparents when my parents were in Korea for a year, then back to South Carolina.

"So I'm well-adjusted to moving."

Andre Roberts

When you add his four years at The Citadel and now his ninth NFL address, it's a process he's well-accustomed to. So, in addition to staying out of the real estate business, he's also learned about packing light.

"You just kind of get used to it. You find your place, you find where you want to settle at. Get your things in there and make it your home," he said. "I would say I travel light. As long as I've got my golf clubs with me and my toothbrush, I'm good to go."

He's made a quick impression since arriving for OTAs, and it doesn't take a long look at practice to realize the kind of difference he can make here. As a team, the Panthers averaged just 22.1 yards per kickoff return last season, and their longest of the year was 39 yards.

So even though it's a young man's game (he's the second-oldest player on the current roster, behind only long-snapper JJ Jansen), Roberts still has fresh legs and a mindset to match it.

"I love it. The young guys keep me young. They keep me fresh," he said. "They keep me up with the music, keep me up with some of the things they're doing. I learn a lot from these young guys, and hopefully they learn from me. But they keep my energy going, and I absolutely love it. . . .

"I think as the years have gone on, I gained respect throughout the league. I'm still trying to get respect of the young guys that's coming in. They don't know anything about me. I haven't been in the NFC for a little while, so I just have to reintroduce myself."

And as Tabor reminds you, Roberts can still get it done, making him more than someone you'd describe as good for his age, but someone who has wisdom in addition to a high level of physical talent.

"He knows the game, he's a crafty veteran," Tabor said, slipping into baseball speak for a second. "I shouldn't say crafty. He's a crafty and successful veteran. When you say the word successful, you usually think about guys that aren't moving a lot. But he has, and he's been good. We expect him to be good.

"He's a downhill, sideline return guy that understands returns and how to set things up. When you really visit with him, he understands whole picture, which is really cool. It's fun for me. As a coach you can learn from those guys. What did you see? How did you see it like that? And sometimes those guys are so good, they get here and it's like 'Wow, they think differently.'"

Check out photos from the Panther Games, where players competed in a series of different sports challenges to see who would take home the trophy and bragging rights.

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