CJ Henderson makes strides at training camp

CJ Henderson

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Cornerbacks coach and director of player evaluation Evan Cooper will tell you how much he and the Panthers liked CJ Henderson before he was drafted by the Jaguars in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Cooper, in particular, has had an eye on Henderson since the Panthers' cornerback was making plays at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami.

Cooper was working under head coach Al Golden at the University of Miami when he first spotted Henderson making plays at the high school five miles down the road.

Today, Cooper gets the chance to coach the talent he's watched for years. He said Henderson's willingness to be coached is what has helped him excel throughout this year's training camp.

"God gave him a lot of physical abilities," Cooper said. "The best thing about CJ outside of those is the fact that he listens."

CJ Henderson

From Cooper's perspective, Henderson possesses every trait a coach could want from a cornerback: his 6-foot-1, 205-pound build, good speed, quick acceleration, the ability to jump high and change direction.

But throughout OTAs and down at Wofford, Henderson has made an impact by applying what he's been told, Cooper said.

"Every time he steps on the field – I coach him every single play on something – he'll come back after the play and say 'This is what I did wrong,' and it'll be something I told him to do that he just didn't do," Cooper said. "He's taking it very, very seriously."

Cooper said Henderson has been improving upon everything from setting up his stance to move laterally in coverage and adjusting his eyes on a receiver's belt buckle to let the receiver guide his path on a play.

Cooper said he's seen Henderson's eyes move to the right places, and his focus is being directed to where it needs to go. The guidance he's given in practice is being taken to heart, and all of it has made an impression on Cooper.

"The things that don't take talent, I can see him trying really hard to do," Cooper said. "It's showing. It's helping."

Henderson has held his own against veteran receivers in camp. He's had particularly competitive moments against speedy Robbie Anderson, breaking up passes and narrowly missing his chances to grab interceptions.

In the Panthers' penultimate day of camp, Henderson went down for push-ups when he missed a pick, holding himself accountable for what he's learned.

Robbie Anderson and CJ Henderson

"This offseason, I think he's been one of the best players that we have right now," Cooper said. "He's just been working really hard. I'm proud of him, and I'm happy to keep coaching him."

Henderson was drafted ninth overall by the Jaguars in 2020 and started in eight games before he was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. He totaled 36 tackles with an interception and forced fumble before being traded to the Panthers last September.

Henderson battled through a nagging shoulder injury last year, finishing with 31 tackles and two pass deflections through 11 games. He went through offseason shoulder surgery and came back ready and comfortable in OTAs, something head coach Matt Rhule has noticed.

"I think so far this camp, he's been really, really, really good," Rhule said after practice on Aug. 2. "He does some things everyday that not many people can do athletically. And he's healthy, which is a big, big deal for a young player like that."

Henderson’s comfort level with the Panthers has helped him feel ready for the upcoming season, and he's been taking advice from veterans and coaches alike.

"I feel like I'm prepared," Henderson said. "I've got a lot of older vets teaching me new things, so I'm just taking that knowledge and continuing to grow."

The Panthers closed Tuesday's practice with some sprints for the first and second team units, getting some extra work since Wednesday's final practice will be mostly for the third units.

Aside from the conditioning run after practice, Henderson has made strides in a different race – the one Cooper watches most closely.

"He's trying really, really hard to become a great player," Cooper said. "I tell those guys, with all the talent we have, it's a race to become consistent. You can have three great plays out of 10, just because you're super talented. But in our position, if we don't have 10 plays out of 10, that could be a touchdown. We're just racing to be consistent in that group."

Cooper said that race isn't done until a player's NFL career comes to a close, which is far off the horizon for 23-year-old Henderson.

But he is "inching closer" to where the Panthers want him to be, Cooper said, and the work Henderson has put in toward his growth in the offseason has brought him closer to reaching that consistency goal.

"I think he could be as good as anybody in the league," Cooper said. "He's obviously not there yet. He has to play on Sundays, and all of this stuff has to show up. But his ceiling, as far as talent is concerned, he was a top-10 pick for a reason. He could be just as good as anyone."

View some of the best photos from training camp from photographers Chanelle Smith-Walker and Kenny Richmond.

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