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Healthy again, Horn and Jackson can begin the offseason with hope for the future

Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson

CHARLOTTE — There are a plethora of words to describe the Panthers' corner unit. Young but hardened; tested but hopeful; fast, physical, and aggressive, with a stat sheet to back them up as one of the best passing defenses in the league. Heading into this offseason for the unit, though, Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson can use another word to describe the duo, one that hasn't been utilized in far too long — healthy.

"For the first time, I'm good to go this offseason," Horn said, excitement tinging his voice, despite the Panthers' season ending on another loss.

Horn and Donte Jackson are heading into their offseason work on schedule instead of being set months back due to recovery. Horn, the first-round corner in the 2021 draft, ended his first two seasons on injured reserve. For that matter, he also spent much of the 2023 season recovering from injury. But he finished the schedule on the field, and that's more than he has done in the past.

"Being able to play the last game of the season did a lot for me," Horn said.

The latest injury was a hamstring that lingered, leaving Horn on IR for 10 weeks. In the six games Horn was able to play, he finished with 27 tackles and five passes defended. Horn's best season with the Panthers was in 2022, when he accumulated 53 tackles, three interceptions, and seven passes defended. That last game, though, still eluded him. It set the tone for his offseason workouts and changed his plans.

That's not going to happen this year.

"Just having a clean offseason to go in and do everything I wanted to do and have a plan and attack it, without worrying about surgery and rehabbing, I think it'll do a lot for me," Horn said.

He plans to stay around Charlotte and do most of his training in the area. He'll take a couple of vacations, Horn made sure to add, but he wants to be near the facilities. He's been given the gift of complete preparation for the first time in his NFL career, and it's not something he'll squander.

"I think about being available and being out there beginning; that's still gonna be my main focus going into next season, but as far as playing football, that's what I love to do," Horn said.

Opposite the field and next to Horn's locker is Jackson. He's been in the league twice as long as Horn but dealt with the same obstacles the past two seasons.

"It's my sixth season, and I haven't played the last game of the season in the last two years. So, for me, it just felt great just to be out there," Jackson said following the season finale.

The past two years, Jackson's seasons have ended in November, with a groin injury and torn Achilles, respectively. This season, however, Jackson suited up for 16 games, missing only a Week 5 matchup against the Detroit Lions. He finished with 59 tackles, a forced fumble, and five passes defended. As he walked off the field on the final Sunday, it was to a 2-15 record, but with excitement about what this defense could do with a full healthy contingent.

"It'll look different, but you take encouragement to the offseason, you let the things you can control lead you, things you can't control, the things that you have no say over, you kind of just let it be. Show up back in OTAs and be ready to work no matter who the coach (is), no matter who's out there with you," Jackson said.

"You take positives into the offseason. I mean, obviously, there's a lot of things that we can say that didn't go right. But you focus on the things that you think you did do well. Things that you think the team did well, you take that to the offseason and use that as encouragement."

Donte Jackson

As for Jackson's offseason, like Horn, he's starting at the point he wants to, and that's more than he's been able to say for far too long.

"I know this will be one of my best offseasons, just off the fact that how much I have been through over the last couple of years, just being able to start offseason healthy for the first time in a long time. So yeah, man, I can't wait just to see this team grow, this organization grow because I know that that is definitely coming, and we're right there."

Things will inevitably look different for the Carolina Panthers in the coming months. For their corner unit, the most significant difference may be that they can prepare for whatever the next season brings at their own pace. Coupled with under-contract safeties Vonn Bell and Xavier Woods, the secondary returning intact is a good place for any new coach to start. It's more than they've had in recent years, and it's a positive they'll happily take into the offseason.

"We want to be playing (in the playoffs) and competing for everything," Horn said. "So, I think that's the focus for us, and we're gonna work hard towards that this offseason, run it back next year."

View TopCats photos from in-game vs. the Packers and Junior TopCats Halftime Performance.