CHARLOTTE – From a professional and personal perspective, Mike Adams has fallen pretty hard for Charlotte.
"We had a great locker room. It's rare to have a locker room like this," the veteran safety said Monday, scanning his workplace for the past two seasons. "I love it here. I was telling TD, if I hadn't built my house in Jersey, I would build it here. If my career had been in Charlotte earlier, I would have stayed here."
Aside from a vacation featuring "one of those slushies with an umbrella in it," Adams planned to return to his native New Jersey native after the Panthers' season ended too early for anyone's liking.
Adams doesn't yet know if he'll have cause to return to Charlotte when offseason workouts begin in April. At that point, Adams will be 38 (only teammate Julius Peppers is older among current NFL defensive players), and the beginning of the new league year will be a month in the rear-view mirror.
"You don't know what to expect in the future for anybody in here. We've got a lot of free agents," said Adams, one of 28 Panthers with expiring contracts. "I definitely want to play again; there's no question. But right now I just want to let my body heal a little bit – just get back to feeling good and then be ready to roll and see what happens."
In this line of work, even for players still under contract, what's going to happen is anyone's guess. Last February, Adams and Kurt Coleman were the Panthers' presumed starters at safety, but then Carolina released Coleman.
A month later the Panthers signed veteran Da'Norris Searcy, who started opposite Adams the first two weeks before Searcy's second concussion in a month landed him on injured reverse. Carolina signed Eric Reid soon after.
Adams, Reid and key reserve Colin Jones are slated to become free agents, leaving Searcy and rookie Rashaan Gaulden as the top safeties under contract for 2019.
"Hopefully the Panthers get a group where they can just stay intact – whether it's me or not," said Adams, noting that Carolina has never returned the same four starting defensive backs for the subsequent season during head coach Ron Rivera's tenure. "These young guys will be here awhile. We've got a young group, and I think they'll be here for a long time. They've got a bright future ahead of them."
Adams plays younger than he is – but he's not getting any younger. Undrafted out of the University of Delaware in 2004, Adams played in half of the 49ers' games as a rookie before playing in all but 10 games over the past 14 seasons.
He recorded 75 tackles for Carolina this past season, tops among Panthers defensive backs and four tackles shy of tying for second on the team behind linebacker Luke Kuechly. His three interceptions were second on the team to give him 24 takeaways (17 interceptions, seven fumble recoveries) over the past five seasons.
"I think I held up well," Adams said. "I think I competed well. I think I played well."
But the defense was a disappointment on balance. The unit found its footing in both late-season meetings with the Saints, but it was too little, too late to land the Panthers back in the playoffs.
"After that Monday night game against the Saints, we were like, 'This is what we can do, what could have been.' But the reality of it is we're headed home, and all we can say is coulda, shoulda, woulda," Adams said. "There will be different faces in this locker room next season."