CHARLOTTE — CJ Henderson has been here long enough to know his way around. That includes the city, and the locker room.
And now that's he's more used to his new surroundings, he's starting to feel a little more at ease.
The former top-10 pick was acquired in a deal with Jacksonville last September, and the cornerback was dropped into a new place with just one truly familiar face. So if there were times when last year never seemed settled, that's reasonable.
Now, the smiles and the words come a little easier, and they're hoping his natural talent follows.
"Yeah, I feel a lot more comfortable," Henderson admitted near the end of OTAs. "I feel like my sophomore year (in the NFL), I really started my career over."
It did take a minute, because Henderson's a naturally quiet guy. So dropping into a room with big personalities like Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn, and a respected veteran like Stephon Gilmore around last year, it was a lot to take in. Escaping the expectations in Jacksonville that came with his draft status was one thing, but walking into a room full of talent like that one was an adjustment. Dealing with some persistent injuries in 2021 didn't help, but those around him see a different player this offseason.
"CJ is a student of the game. He wants to be great," Jackson said. "He asks a lot of questions, and he'll do everything you ask him to do. Getting acclimated last year, it was probably a trade he didn't expect.
"Now he's more comfortable, he's smiling, laughing a lot more. But definitely, CJ's a student of the game. He loves to ball; he loves to compete. That's one thing we feed off in that room; everybody wants to compete and be great. We want that for each other."
If Henderson can deliver on his significant athletic potential, the Panthers will still have a talented secondary, even without Gilmore. With Jackson returning and Horn healthy again, there's a place for a guy with Henderson's size and speed on the field, giving them options in the secondary.
Those gifts have been evident for years, and Panthers cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper has seen them up close.
The ties between Cooper and Henderson are long-lasting. They grew up about five minutes apart in Miami. One of Cooper's cousins was a high school teammate of Henderson's dad. An aunt lived two minutes from Henderson's door. Cooper's been watching him for years.
When Cooper was working at the University of Miami under head coach Al Golden, he tried to recruit Henderson to the local school.
"This guy is a big corner, that runs like a small corner, and plays physical like a big corner," Cooper said. "I saw his sophomore film, his JV film actually, and I went to him and said, hey coach Golden, I know we probably don't always do this, but this guy is special, and he's right down the street."
Cooper left for Temple to join head coach Matt Rhule's staff, and he knew he couldn't talk Henderson into moving to Philadelphia, but when they went to Baylor, he made another call. Neither worked, as Henderson ended up at Florida, where he was All-Southeastern Conference his final year.
"So I offered him two times," Cooper said with a laugh. "Now, I finally got my guy."
Having a known commodity on the coaching staff was helpful as Henderson was getting used to new surroundings, but he also said it came with a certain expectation.
"It helped out a lot," Henderson said, "He recruited me out of high school, so we had that bond since then, so coming in, he knew the potential I had and what he had to work with. So that helped a lot, our relationship. It has its goods and its bads to it.
"We get into it sometimes, because if you get comfortable he stays on you, and he knows what hurts you and what helps you. So it's good."
Being pushed by coaches and peers is part of the formula in this secondary, and Henderson's warming up to that part of it too.
He said being in the room with Jackson and Horn creates some good-natured SEC trash talk, and there are routine debates about which school has produced the highest-level defensive backs in the NFL (it's a fair debate).
Cooper said last fall he thought Henderson's personality would begin to emerge once he was here longer, and Jackson's assessment affirmed that. Henderson's still not going to have the biggest voice — there's way too much competition in that room — but he's starting to feel at home now that he's spent an offseason with these guys.
"Don't feel like it's pressure at all; it's more of a higher standard we have to live up to each and every practice and every game," Henderson said of the dynamic. "That makes us all better at the end. It helps us compete with each other and against each other. One day somebody gets an interception; the next day, someone gets two. It's competitive.
"It's just getting a feel for guys. Certain guys react to things in different ways. So you've got to know what they're like, how they want to be spoken to."
Asked if it was starting to feel like home to him, Henderson thought about it for a second and smiled.
"Now it does."
Henderson played in 10 games with 35 tackles for Carolina after he was traded from Jacksonville in 2021.