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Carolina Panthers

Coleman standing watch over "Thieves Avenue"

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Some street dwellers have relocated, and some new faces have moved in.

But according to a returning tenant, the turnover along "Thieves Avenue" won't impact the group's goal of creating turnovers to pave the way to victory.

"Thieves Avenue is where we live, and we are the thieves. So why does it change? It doesn't," safety Kurt Coleman said. "The mantra and mindset hasn't changed. The personnel has, but that's cool. We have new people who are ready to step up in the wings."

Coleman is the lone returning starter from a secondary that erected a street sign in the locker room last season on its way to helping the Panthers pace the NFL with 24 interceptions. Coleman set the pace with seven interceptions in his first season with the Panthers after totaling 10 interceptions his first five NFL seasons, and the organization rewarded him Wednesday with a three-year contract extension through the 2019 season.

But Coleman, even before the new contract, was only concerned about setting the pace along a path that has little to do with numbers.

"Whether I got this new deal or not, I want to win," said Coleman, the new leader of a group that got young seemingly overnight after three starters with 27 years of NFL experience departed and after the Panthers drafted three cornerbacks. "I want to win in Carolina, and we have the right people and the tools to get it done. I want to pour my energy and my insight into them.

"It started in April. We've really been trying to become a team in the back end as far as cohesiveness and chemistry, and also for the corners that are new and young, the experience factor. We've just to get them as many reps as possible. They're accountable. They're very talented. They're smart. It's just about getting that experience you may not have as a rookie, so I've been trying to teach them a lot about understanding route concepts and other things about the game of football. I've really embraced this role."

And the Panthers, in turn, have embraced Coleman. He's always had a nose for the football, having intercepted a pass approximately once every three starts his first five NFL seasons despite being used as a starter just 40 percent of the time.

That changed last year in Carolina, when he started all 15 games he played and set the franchise record for interceptions by a safety.

"I'm very fortunate that the organization saw the importance of what I can bring to this team. I won't let them down," Coleman said. "This is a wonderful opportunity for me and my family and my friends who have been along with me for the journey. It's been a struggle, but I've never lost faith in myself, the belief that I knew if I was given the right opportunity, I knew I could succeed in this league.

"It was about being consistent, and I'm excited because this is another year in the same system. This is the first time in my whole career where I've had the same defensive coordinator back-to-back years. I feel very comfortable."

Yes, that comfort level is important to Coleman's success, but it might be even more important to the secondary's success as a whole. That's because Coleman's influence figures to be a crucial component in getting the team's trio of rookie corners to perform beyond their years.

It's another challenge that Coleman welcomes.

"Everybody is counting us out in the back, but I think we're going to turn a lot of heads. We're going to rise to the challenge like we always have," Coleman said. "When people don't know who you are, that's kind of human nature to doubt you. When you don't have a superstar, it's, 'What can they do?'

"We don't have a superstar, but that's OK. We have a lot of guys who are willing to work, who are talented and are going to make a lot of plays back there."

That describes Coleman himself in a nutshell, and that describes the version of swag he brings to "Thieves Avenue" – a collective confidence built around team unity.

The neighborhood should stay safe under Coleman's watch.

"I'm a team-first guy. I work hard. I'm smart. I'm tough. I'll sacrifice whatever I have to for the betterment of the team, and I make plays when I'm called upon," Coleman said. "Put all those things together – I may not run the fastest 40, I may not just the highest, but I'll give you everything I've got, every single play.

"This defense is structured to where if you just do your job, you will be successful."

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