CHARLOTTE - The Panthers' depth at cornerback has improved with the addition of recent second-round pick Darius Butler, but Butler's closest friend on his new team is vowing to keep Butler behind him on the depth chart.
Butler, claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots, and Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn became friends while preparing for the 2009 draft at Deion Sanders' Prime U training facility in Dallas.
"If he's coming for my spot, he's got to come with it because I'm tough to beat," Munnerlyn said with a smile, standing just a few lockers down from Butler. "It's going to be a tough competition, but I love competitions. It's just going to make me and him better.
"At the end of the day, he's still my teammate and one of my best friends."
Butler also has ties to Chris Gamble, a longtime starter at cornerback for the Panthers. Both grew up in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that Butler could be ready to contribute when the Panthers open the regular season Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals, but Gamble and Munnerlyn will start.
"Everybody in this locker room wants to be on the field, and obviously that's my goal, too," Butler said. "I'm going to pick up on the schemes as fast as I can and get on the field as fast as I can.
"We all know this is a production business, and guys are fighting for jobs every day, on every team. It's nothing new to anybody. I'm going to come in here and work and make my impact on the team where I can."
Butler is eager for the new opportunity. Selected 41st overall by the Patriots in 2009, he started three of New England's final six games as a rookie and ended the year with three interceptions. He got the start in the first two games of 2010 but made just one start the rest of the year and didn't record an interception all season.
"It was the best move for the team and the best move for me," Butler said of the Patriots' decision to waive him Tuesday. "I'm glad it worked out this way. It's great. I'm coming into a better situation for me, a fresh start for me. I'm just eager to get after it."
Carolina also made another move in the secondary Wednesday, re-signing safety Sean Considine two days after releasing him and waiving safety Stevie Brown.
As for the cornerback spot, the Panthers didn't re-sign Richard Marshall - who started every game the last two seasons – after selecting West Virginia product Brandon Hogan in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. Hogan, however, will start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, while Marshall is expected see significant playing time for Arizona on Sunday.
While the Panthers have now added a potential difference-maker in the 5-10, 190-pound Butler, Rivera was quick to defend the value of Munnerlyn, who picked off three passes in five starts last season.
"The biggest thing Darius has is top-end speed – he's a 4.3 guy, and that's always intriguing to find. Secondly, he's got long arms – a long-armed corner that plays very physical," Rivera said. "Captain is a young man who plays hard, plays physical. Sure, he has some other qualities that people wish were different, but he uses what he has to the best of his ability, and to us he's an NFL starter.
"Are we always looking to improve? Yes, at every position, whether it's that individual bettering himself or we find an individual that is better. But for now, this young man is going to start for us and is going to give us everything he has."
Munnerlyn, listed at 5-8, has heard the doubters since his collegiate days at South Carolina but has always answered the call. It's much the same for Carolina's secondary on the whole, an often-criticized group that was 11th-best in the NFL in passing yards allowed last season and fourth-best in 2009.
"I feel like I'm an every-down corner," Munnerlyn said. "People point out my size, but I go out there on Sundays and make plays, no matter how tall I am. People say, 'He's only 5-9. He can't jump with a 6-2, 6-3 receiver.' I've got a nice little vertical, and I'm a physical guy. If I beat them up at the line of scrimmage, they can't get down the field."
As for the Panthers secondary on the whole, a group that now includes his good friend Butler?
"All the talk has been that we need help, that we need to do this, we need to do that, but I feel like this secondary can be one of the elite secondaries in the NFL," Munnerlyn said. "We have two great safeties (Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin) that are backed up by Jordan Pugh, and we have some corners that can play football. All we have to do is go out and prove that we can play."