CHARLOTTE – Mike Adams is a changed man.
The player nicknamed "Pops" is at least seven years older than any of the Panthers' other defensive backs, but some new blood has helped bring out a new Adams.
"I feel like we're starting to give him some of the Fountain of Youth when it comes to different sayings, dressing-up advice," safety Rashaan Gaulden said of himself and fellow rookie Donte Jackson.
So Adams, 37, looks different.
"He doesn't come to meetings in the old man sweatpants and stuff. He always has to have something flashy," Gaulden continued. "When he walks into meetings, he's like, 'Yo D-Jack, yo RG, you like my drip?'"
And Adams talks different – even if he's not chronicling his 'drip' like a certain quarterback.
Then there's the music.
"Just being around them, I'm hearing songs I've never heard before," Adams said. "See, I like old school music. I don't know about this new stuff. They've got Lil Baby, Lil Uzi, all these Lil names."
To Adams, "old school" means Jay-Z, Styles P and Fabolous.
No Earth, Wind & Fire?
"C'mon," Adams fired back, "I ain't THAT old."
Adams entered the NFL the same season as longtime Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble. But Gamble was a first-round pick out of Ohio State. Adams was undrafted coming out of Division I-AA Delaware. He's since carved out a heck of a career, one that's seen him play in 206 of a possible 216 games after the 49ers promoted the rookie from their practice squad in 2004.
You'd think a guy who's been around that long would have no problem inheriting a leadership role. But the transition wasn't easy during Adams' first season in Carolina.
"That's one thing I do regret – not stepping up a little bit more last year," he admitted. "When you come to a new place, sometimes you've got to know your role regardless of how long you've been in the league. I took a step back. Maybe I shouldn't have. Maybe I should've been more assertive.
"This year I know that I have to step up. Second year in the system, I'm comfortable in the system, comfortable with the players. So that makes it a lot easier."
So did the Panthers' call to part ways this offseason with Kurt Coleman, who was a team captain and the unquestioned leader of the defensive backs room in 2017.
"I think Mike Adams has really stepped up into the forefront," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I think the decision to go with him as opposed with Kurt, I think he really felt that kind of responsibility."
That means while the young guys in the room teach Adams about pop culture, they get schooled by him on work.
"So much," Gaulden said when asked what he's learned from Adams. "Tendencies from receivers and tight ends. Different checks. He's an all-around mentor who has changed the game for me. I'm able to do things within the framework of my job because I feel comfortable with him out there."
Despite deferring his leadership instincts last season, Adams started every game at strong safety. He racked up 75 tackles, 10 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries while adding a forced fumble and two interceptions. The picks upped his total to 14 since the start of 2014, tied for fifth most in the league. Not bad for the second-oldest defensive back behind Minnesota cornerback Terence Newman.
"Just because he's old doesn't mean he can't play," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "Mike's one of the best people I've played with, and it's fun to have a guy like that that's been around. He's seen everything. He's played Cover 3 a million different ways. He's got good perspective. He's good with the young guys.
"Even though he's smart and he's a great dude, he can still play. Everybody thinks he's old, but he's still got some juice."
Kuechly compares Adams to former safety Roman Harper, who was 32 when he helped the Panthers go 15-1 en route to the 2015 NFC title. So Adams is five years older than what Harper was but believes he can continue to prove age indeed is just a number.
"I feel young. I feel good. I'm still having fun," Adams said. "Sometimes practice and camp is grueling. It's a grind. But when the lights come on, that feeling never gets old. That's when the young spirit comes out."
It also helps to have some kids like Gaulden and Jackson around.
"I had to up my dress. I think I have to buy a whole new wardrobe," Adams said. "But I'm still more of a sweatpants guy walking around.
"They just like my drip better now."