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Panthers cornerbacks ready to fill in, if needed

Tae Hayes

CHARLOTTE – Tae Hayes keeps a watchful eye from the sideline. He knows what's going on with the cornerbacks and can tell when he's about to get an opportunity to take the field.

Elevated from the Panthers' practice squad for the last two games, Hayes has grown in tune with the flow of the game and his teammates' habits.

Starting corner Donte Jackson played through an ankle injury in last week's win over Tampa Bay. Hayes saw when Jackson would start reaching for his leg, and he was eager to step up from the sideline.

"I'm always paying attention, just in case," Hayes said. "I even tell Donte, 'If you need one play, just let me know, just wave at me. I'll come out there one play; you come back and get me. But if you need a play, just let me know.'"

Hayes came in for three snaps in the Buccaneers game, but he took on a much more significant role one week before at the Rams. In his debut as a Panther, he played 17 snaps, his most NFL plays since 2019.

Hayes and fellow backup corner Keith Taylor Jr. have been tasked with more prominent roles over the past couple of weeks as Carolina's starters struggle with injuries. And since Hayes, an undrafted free agent out of Appalachian State who spent the spring playing in the USFL, was promoted to the 53-man roster this week, he and Taylor have continued to stay prepared in case they need to run out for a play or two.

"I'm so motivated right now," Hayes said after he signed to the roster. "I want to do more than just be on the team; I want to get on the team and be a big part of the team. … I mean, I deserve it. I work hard. I want to be one of the players on the team that people talk about. That's my goal."

Evan Cooper and Tae Hayes

Starters Jackson, Jaycee Horn (ribs), and CJ Henderson (arm) have all popped on and off the injury report throughout the first seven weeks, and the situation hit a fever pitch in Los Angeles.

The Rams game in Week 6 was the first time Hayes had been elevated from the Panthers' practice squad, and Taylor played a season-high 60 percent of snaps.

Since that game, which was the first under interim coach Steve Wilks, the two have impressed coaches and teammates with their preparation and performances. Taylor came down with the fourth-most tackles on the team against Los Angeles, and Hayes has earned the staff's trust through practice.

"When you look at Keith Taylor, Tae Hayes, all these other guys, that's what coaching is all about," Wilks said. "That's how you make your mark in this league. It's not about, 'OK, I got the first-round draft pick.' We've got to go develop guys. We've got to get other guys ready to play."

Taylor was a fifth-round pick for Carolina in the 2021 draft out of Washington, and he stepped in for Horn as a rookie after the Panthers' first-round pick last year suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 3.

Keith Taylor Jr.

Wilks, who coached the secondary before taking over the interim head coaching role, said he pointed out Taylor's performance on a third-down play last week in a team meeting. He praised Taylor's preparation, and Taylor takes pride in that.

"My thing is if you stay ready, you don't ever have to get ready," Taylor said. "I think it just goes back to my preparation, all throughout the week (and) every day. After meetings are over, I'll come in and watch more film by myself, try to see the offense's tendencies. So when I have to get thrown out there, like I have been doing for the last couple of weeks, I'm not nervous or anything. I'm on point."

Taylor said he takes advice from Jackson, someone he called a "cerebral" player who often shares his outlook on the game from the sidelines. Horn said he does the same when he isn't playing.

Jackson and Henderson each played last week against the Buccaneers, and Henderson was a full participant in Wednesday's practice. Horn, who hasn't played for the previous two weeks, and Jackson were both limited in this week's first practice. Jackson returned to full participation on Thursday.

Wilks and the staff are hopeful for a healthy starting unit and especially a return for Horn. But he also wants to devote time and effort to developing the players behind them.

"Do I want to see Jaycee out there? Of course, but I'm not going to pressure him to do something he doesn't feel great about," Wilks said. "Most importantly, I have a lot of confidence in those other guys stepping up."

Check out the best photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Falcons this weekend.

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