CHARLOTTE – The ties that bind Da'Norris Searcy and Ross Cockrell to each other and to the Panthers run pretty deep.
Both defensive backs signed two-year contracts with Carolina on Friday, coming back to the state where they played college football and in Cockrell's case where he attended high school. This won't be the first time they've played together: Both were fourth-round draft picks of the Bills and overlapped in 2014 when Cockrell was a rookie and Searcy was in his fourth and final season in Buffalo.
For all that though, there is this: Searcy played collegiately at North Carolina, Cockrell at archrival Duke.
"I was glad we got a guy from the ACC, but he did come from Duke so I had to heckle him a little bit," Searcy said. "I gave him a pretty hard time about it during training camp (in 2014), but once training camp was over it was just down to football.
"He's a good guy who came in from Day One working to prove himself – and still trying to prove himself, same as me. I'm glad he's here."
The coincidences are cool. The chance to play close to family and friends is cool.
But Searcy's statement about Carolina providing a proving ground trumps it all.
"That's the main reason I chose here – the opportunity to compete and be on the field," Cockrell said. "I've been a productive player the last couple of years, and I now get another opportunity to prove it.
"This is a team that has been to the Super Bowl, that has played top-notch defense. We just want to add and contribute to that."
Both players are transitioning from challenging situations in 2017 and are poised to help the Panthers through a challenging set of circumstances.
Five weeks away from the draft, the first wave of free agency having already died down, the Panthers were hurting at both safety and cornerback before Cockrell and Searcy shared a ride from the airport Thursday evening and then both signed contracts less than 24 hours later.
At safety, the Panthers were comfortable enough with Mike Adams and what could be done in free agency and the draft to release veteran Kurt Coleman last month. With the signing of Searcy, a 29-year-old who has seven NFL seasons under his belt and has started 56 of his 107 career games, the Panthers don't have to draft needy now.
"I still see myself as a starter," Searcy said. "I will come into this situation competing and carrying myself as a starter like always, and we'll just let the chips fall where they may."
View photos of cornerback Ross Cockrell during his football career.
At corner, the Panthers traded Daryl Worley, the starter most of the last two seasons opposite James Bradberry, last week. They appeared to have secured a new starter before the planned signing of free agent Bashaud Breeland fell through because of a failed physical.
Cockrell, 26, started 32 games over the last three seasons, including all 16 at outside corner for the Steelers in 2016. He, like Searcy, has proven his ability but is hungry to prove it all over again.
"Last year was a little bit of a whirlwind," said Cockrell, who was traded to the Giants just before the regular season began and endured a drama-filled, loss-filled year before becoming a free agent. "It created a tough environment, but it was an environment I thrived in. I just worked, watched film, and when the opportunity came I did my best to take advantage of it."
That's the same approach taken by Searcy with the Titans last year. After starting at strong safety for Tennessee throughout the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Searcy was reduced to top reserve in 2017 after the Titans signed Johnathan Cyprien in the offseason.
"I still saw myself as one of the leaders in the room, was still the oldest guy in the room. I still carried myself that way, and whatever the team needed me to do, I was willing," said Searcy, who was released by the Titans earlier this month. "Now that I have an opportunity to come here and reestablish myself as a starter, I'm just looking forward to it."
Searcy is excited about possibly buying a condo in Chapel Hill and his parents being able to drive up four hours from Atlanta to watch him play. Cockrell went to Charlotte Latin, his parents live in Waxhaw and just happen to be next-door neighbors with linebacker Thomas Davis, and one of Cockrell's sisters is a senior volleyball player at Davidson College.
It all makes so much sense, but only time will tell if the stars align on the field as they have off the field.
"It's pretty much a no-brainer," Searcy said. "This defense is smart, physical, flies to the ball and has fun. They take the motto, 'Keep Pounding!' very seriously, and I love that.
"It's a good bunch of guys who are hungry even though they've been to a Super Bowl together and want to get back, and I'm just here to help and hopefully reach that same goal together."
View photos of safety Da'Norris Searcy throughout his NFL career with the Titans and Bills.