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Panthers secondary a "special" group with talent, veteran leadership 

Defensive backs

SPARTANBURG – Three-time Pro Bowl cornerback and 15-year NFL veteran DeAngelo Hall called it "pretty special" for his first venture into coaching to be here, at Carolina.

Not everybody gets to coach this kind of talent, much less in their first year in the business.

And the assistant defensive backs coach recognized it when he got an outside perspective on his new job.

During a recent FaceTime call including Hall, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, cornerbacks coach Jonathan Cooley, and one of the league's most respected defensive coaches, Hall realized what he was walking into.

"We're talking, and we're just catching up, and he ends with, 'All right, I'm going to go coach these guys. Y'all go have fun coaching them great players you got,'" Hall said with a laugh.

"Yeah, it's a little unreal to have the kind of talent we have in the back end."

DeAngelo Hall, Jeremy Chinn, CJ Henderson

That other people see it too — people who would know — confirms what the Panthers believe.

There's a wealth of talent across the secondary; if you count Jeremy Chinn, listed as a nickel cornerback on the unofficial depth chart but expected to be deployed in multiple spots, they boast five players taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. This includes two first-rounders in Jaycee Horn (eighth overall in 2021) and CJ Henderson (ninth overall in 2020, taken by the Jaguars).

They know they have the raw ability across the roster and the pieces to make something special. The defensive backs have high expectations of themselves, but they also know they have plenty to prove.

"Best in the league," Horn said when asked about the standard for his position group. "I think that's the expectation for every secondary. If it's not, then there's something wrong with you. Like obviously, when you go out there, you want to be the best. Limit big plays, make a lot of big plays on your side of the ball. So that's what we're going to try to go out there and do."

So what's the goal for Horn, who has played two seasons (though he's never made it through a full one without injury) on teams without a winning record?

"Win," he said. "I feel like since I came into the league, just going into games, y'all know I talk a lot of junk. I feel like we don't have a lot of respect at this organization right now. So I feel like, going into year three, I'm just so focused on the team, and us winning and getting our respect around this league."

Jaycee Horn

But among the veteran leaders, they're keeping all evaluations within their unit – even after a joint practice with the Jets, the first time this unit has faced an offense other than the Panthers'. Aaron Rodgers and all of his experience and ability weren't factors.

"We just worry about us," safety Vonn Bell said.

In worrying about them, they actually have a lot to be excited about, starting in the middle with Bell and fellow veteran safety Xavier Woods.

Bell's in his first year with the Panthers after splitting his first seven seasons between stints with the Saints (four years) and Bengals (three years). He brings 636 career tackles, 35 passes defended, six interceptions from his career thus far – including a career-best four interceptions and eight passes defended last season alone.

Linebacker Shaq Thompson's a fan, and he likes how he pairs with Woods, fondly referred to as "Professor X" for his football IQ and communication style.

"One guy I was really excited about was Vonn Bell," Thompson said. "I've been a fan of Vonn Bell since he was in New Orleans. So having him and X back there, man, that's two great safeties."

Donte Jackson is another starter who appreciates what that safety duo brings.

"Those guys, just so smart, man," Jackson said. "When it comes to just putting guys in position, making sure we know where we're at, making sure everybody's a step ahead, and everybody's going the right direction. So just to have two veteran safeties who have played a lot of ball back there, it's going to do wonders for the defense."

Vonn Bell, Xavier Woods

Bell said he and Woods share "the same set of lenses," with refined situational awareness, complementing each other as leaders. 

But Bell does bring a different kind of fire to the field as a chirpy leader who motivates noisily and energetically. 

And he hasn't found someone on his level from this roster, at this point. 

"I get a little fiery," he said. "It just comes from passion and love for this game. … 

"Nobody's on my level. They haven't seen that yet. D-Jack can turn up; Horn can turn up. I saw (CJ Henderson) a little spicy. I love it. I think all the guys got a little fire to them, and just a little something to it. That's why I say it's very special, man." 

Of course, there's plenty for the Panthers to boast about between the veteran core of Bell, Woods, and Jackson. But the young core of Horn, Henderson, and Chinn brings just as much juice.

Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn

Horn has brought a grounded presence despite his relatively young age since he got to the NFL, a testament to his family and how much he's always been a student of the game.

"(He's a) very smart and instinctive player, wanting to be in position to make plays," Bell said. "He's growing, and he's flourishing at a very rapid pace. He'll just keep on growing within his game. The sky's the limit."

When Bell joined the squad already assembled at Carolina, one of the things he looked forward to most was becoming part of a group that he'd seen before and was impressed by.

They met his expectations throughout training camp, and they're aligned around the message Bell will echo. No outside chatter getting in the way for that secondary, only "We'll worry about us."

"We all try to be the best," Bell said. "And we all just want better for each other. We always want the best for one another, for sure. It's close-knit, man; we hang out with each other outside of football, always talking life. It's just real, because we always need each other. That's what makes this group so unique and so special. There's no me. It's we."

Defensive backs

View photos of the fans at the Panthers' joint practice against the New York Jets on Wednesday in Spartanburg.

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