Samford cornerbacks coach Sam Shade knows James Bradberry's journey to the NFL as well as just about anyone.
Shade coached the Panthers' second-round pick for four years. Their roots aren't far apart – Shade grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and Bradberry grew up in Pleasant Grove, 20 minutes away.
But while Shade played his college football for Alabama and starred as a hard-hitting safety, Bradberry didn't have the same interest from top-flight college programs.
"The Birmingham area where he's from is just not as heavily recruited," Shade said in a phone interview. "It just doesn't get as much traffic as some big areas."
Bradberry ultimately chose Arkansas State over Samford coming out of high school. He was told he would be given the chance to play cornerback, but soon learned the plan was for him to move to safety.
So Bradberry transferred to a school in his home state, and Samford afforded him the opportunity to play cornerback under the tutelage of a former NFL defensive back.
It was where Bradberry was meant to play.
Despite his low-profile recruitment, Bradberry made his NFL dreams known early on to Shade, a former fourth-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals who played nine years in the NFL and who knew what it would take for that to happen. Shade soon realized Bradberry's aspirations weren't farfetched.
"He felt early on that he could have a chance to possibly play in the NFL, and that's something that he talked about coming out of high school," Shade recalled. "I waited till about his second year at Samford to really tell him, 'Look man, you've got an opportunity in front of you if you work your butt off and train like you've never trained. You're going to have a shot at the next level.'"
Some coaches thought the 6-1, 211-pound Bradberry was too big to play corner. But at Samford, he proved that he had the athletic ability to do the job. Then his length on the perimeter was viewed as an asset.
"James has really good feet and hips for a longer guy," Shade said. "That's what stood out to me, and that's what I saw from guys in the NFL.
"I played with some really good corners in the league – four years with Champ Bailey in Washington. Just watching guys like him, and I'm not saying James is on that level, but for a longer corner, James is light on his feet. Most longer guys are a little more robotic, they're not as smooth."
Bradberry's physical tools helped him become a three-time All-Southern Conference selection for the Bulldogs.
His steady mental commitment helped elevate his game and prepare him for the next level.
"When he gets between the lines, he's all business," Shade said. "But the thing about James, even when he makes a good play, he doesn't get too excited and forget about the next play. If he has a bad play – which he had few of – it doesn't bother him that much where it affects him on the next play. He's very even-keeled and focused. That's something I think you need at corner.
"He can play at the NFL level. It's just a matter of how much better he's going to get. And I think he's going to get a lot better."
View photos of the Panthers' second-round draft pick, Samford cornerback James Bradberry.