CHARLOTTE – James Bradberry's second season wasn't supposed to go like this.
Moments after the Panthers' playoff loss in New Orleans, the preseason's popular breakout candidate at cornerback stood alone in a corner of the visitors' locker room quietly packing his travel bag. The final image of his up-and-down season – an unsuccessful attempt to knock the ball away from Ted Ginn Jr., whose 80-yard touchdown gave the Saints a lead they'd never lose.
"It was no one's fault," Bradberry said before quickly changing course. "I went for the ball and missed, so at the end of the day it's my fault."
No, it wasn't. But the accountability is noble.
Coming into the season, the hype around Bradberry wasn't unwarranted. In 2016, he went from an unknown Samford product to shadowing Julio Jones and Mike Evans. And for what it's worth, Pro Football Focus named Bradberry their top-ranked rookie cornerback.
This season, though, he finished with the site's 110th ranking at the position – one spot ahead of Kevon Seymour and 21 behind Daryl Worley, who spent most of his sophomore year splitting snaps with Seymour.
"Life changing," Worley said last week when asked about his disappointing season. "It changed me for the better. I will always look back on it as one that I will remember. Maybe that strength stems from now having a son and an attitude that he should never see me weak so he should never feel weak."
While Bradberry and Worley didn't become what many expected in 2017, it wasn't a wasted season. Good or bad, experience is always valuable. They also seemed to shore things up in December, including a two-week stretch where the ball skills they had hoped to improve finally showed up.
Against the Vikings, Worley picked off the first pass by a Carolina corner all season. Bradberry then doubled that total. A week later, they each intercepted Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a feat Worley foreshadowed in an Instagram post featuring Bradberry.
But after two seasons of stories that have usually tied the 2016 draftees together, it's clear Worley is at least somewhat tired of that sentiment.
"We're two individual players and we can't always be linked together," he said. "There's going to be games where I'm going to have a bad game and he's going to have a bad game."
And there will be games when they're each good or bad. What's key now is learning how to be the former more often than not.
"I just played inconsistent," Bradberry said. "At times I made great plays and sometimes I played terrible."
Despite the rocky season, there's still reason to be optimistic about both corners.
Bradberry has all the skills to be an elite corner, and he's just 24.
"It didn't go as planned," he said of his second season, "but I think I have something to build off of."
Worley, meanwhile, finished the year as the second-youngest Panther on the active roster.
"It's over with now," said Worley, who turns 23 next month. "The past is the past and I've moved forward from it."