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Corners key to defense rising up rankings in 2017


CHARLOTTE – Members of the Panthers defense have never been shy about their high expectations, and it's no different this year.

"We want to be the number one defense," safety Kurt Coleman said.

To do that, the Panthers must climb 20 spots in the rankings from a season ago.

But with the pieces that have been added this offseason – nine-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, two-time Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams and established nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn – that goal could be attainable for a unit that finished in the top 10 each season from 2012-15.

The big variable in this equation appears to be the second-year cornerbacks starting on the outside.

James Bradberry and Daryl Worley were thrown into the fire as rookies, and Carolina finished 29th in pass defense. But both proved they belong after learning through mistakes.

Now the question becomes, how big a step forward will they take in 2017? Because if the Panthers are going to reach those lofty heights, they're going to need Bradberry and Worley to get them there.

"Yeah, that's definitely fair to say," said Munnerlyn, who was part of Minnesota's third-ranked defense in 2016. "The thing about good defenses, they always have good corners, corners that are willing to tackle. You can have a great front seven, but it's a pass-happy league. Everybody wants to throw the ball these days, so you've got to be able to cover.

"Those guys (Bradberry and Worley) got thrown in the fire quick, and you can tell what a year has done. They understand the defense, they're competing at a very high level."

The pressure was on Bradberry and Worley as rookie starters last year, and it's not going away in Year Two.

The D-line is deep with talent and experience, the linebackers are star-studded and the safeties are proven ball-hawking veterans. But what can we expect from the corners?

We know this: Their development will say a lot about the success of Carolina's defense.

"Yeah, no one really questions if Luke or TD are going to play up to par," Bradberry said following Wednesday's OTA practice. "But they are really questioning if we (the corners) are going to take it to the next level.

"Luckily for us, we have a great front seven and some great safeties in the back end like Kurt and Mike to help us out. So we feel comfortable with those guys around us."

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