CHARLOTTE – This time last year, safety Kurt Coleman was a free agent addition looking to cement his place on a new team. Safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere were young defensive backs looking to take steps forward in their second seasons.
Now, as the Panthers begin organized team activities, the three of them are being counted on to lead the Carolina secondary in 2016.
"It's a lot of responsibility," Coleman said, "and I'm excited about it."
The Panthers, who led the NFL with 39 forced turnovers in 2015, have undergone significant turnover in their own secondary this offseason.
The most notable departure was Josh Norman's. Carolina rescinded the franchise tag, and the Pro Bowl cornerback signed with Washington.
Additionally, safety Roman Harper and cornerback Charles Tillman – two starters with a combined 23 years of NFL experience – are no longer on the team.
"I love those guys, and they were a great piece to what we did last year," Coleman said. "But this is a new year. We get to build our own legacy, so to speak. That's what we're trying to build right now. We have the people, we have the talent, we just have to continue to work at it.
"For guys that haven't played in this defense, it's all about building trust. In OTAs and minicamp that's what we have to accomplish – the communication and trust building so when we get to training camp in July we hit the ground running."
Coleman, who beat out Boston for the starting safety job last year, is now practicing alongside him with the first-team defense.
"He's a great guy to be out there with," Boston said. "I almost feel like we're the same guy when we're out there. We're elusive guys, guys who will hit, guys who can fly around and make plays."
It will be critical for them to trust each other and communicate effectively to fill the void left by Harper, a vocal veteran who helped stabilize the secondary.
"I really like what those guys have as far as their individual physical tools," head coach Ron Rivera said of Coleman and Boston. "I'd like to see us develop that rapport. Roman was such a fixture back there. When you have a veteran guy back there that gets it and communicates as well as he does, hopefully the young guys can emulate that."
The cornerback position, meanwhile, has been injected with young talent after Carolina drafted three corners in the 2016 NFL Draft.
And Benwikere, who is entering just his third NFL season, is suddenly the longest tenured Panther in the cornerback group.
"Of course, I'll be another coach out there on the field," Benwikere said. "I've been doing that, and the guys that have come in are a smart bunch. They're getting what's going on, and now that we're out here and it's a faster pace, they are going to have to get used to that. I'll keep staying on them."
Benwikere, still working his way back from a fractured leg suffered late in the 2015 season, isn't fazed by the leadership role that's been thrust upon him.
"People keep asking me that, but no not really," Benwikere said. "At my college, I was in my third year when I was the oldest guy in the room. I'm just going to try to use that experience. The coaches have already talked to me about that."
Said Rivera: "We're counting on him to become one of the leaders of the secondary."
So much has changed for the Carolina secondary, but the group wants its identity to remain the same.
They helped the Panthers lead the league with 24 interceptions a year ago and started calling themselves "Thieves Ave." They took pride in taking the ball away and lived by the moniker.
Some residents of Thieves Ave. have left. Some just moved in. But the mindset will carry over and take on new life in 2016.
"We'll always be thieves," said Coleman, who led the team with seven picks in 2015. "We've always said not one person makes us who we are. The next man has got to be able to step up. Our mindset is always to be thieves. Obviously it's a process, but that's why we're out here.
"We're going to build within the culture. It's not going to be the same as last year, and that's OK. It's OK. We are going to build our own new identity within the thievery."
View photos from the first week of Carolina's organized team activities.