CHARLOTTE – Rashaan Gaulden readily admits it now.
Last year, the rookie defensive back couldn't see the bigger picture.
"(General manager) Marty (Hurney) and Coach (Ron) Rivera, they've had a plan for me all along, and I just didn't see it early on," Gaulden said following Carolina's first OTA practice. "I didn't have it all together. I was frustrated. I wasn't getting the (playing) time. But they had a plan for me, they were grooming me, and I just had to stick to that plan.
"And know when my time comes, I have to be that backbone on defense."
It's there for the taking as Gaulden enters his second NFL season. The former third-round draft choice from Tennessee is a leading candidate at both safety and nickel.
The Panthers parted ways this offseason with veteran safeties Mike Adams and Da'Norris Searcy, and they elected not to draft one. There are some proven veterans still available on the market, but thus far the Panthers have opted to stand pat.
The nickel spot is also open after Carolina released veteran Captain Munnerlyn, and that's where Gaulden shined at Tennessee.
"It's been a lot of mental preparation knowing with the decisions that have been made that I am going to be relied on a bit more," Gaulden said. "I've been getting my body right and getting that sniper focus to be ready for everything they throw at me."
Gaulden sounds like a different player this spring. He's clearly energized by the opportunity that lies in front of him. And while he played in just 14 percent of the defensive snaps last season, there was a lot to be learned every step of the way.
"Growth, man. Just 100 percent knowing the playbook, now I can play fast," Gaulden said. "You're gonna see a lot of swagger. A lot of communication and really just having fun."
That ought to bring the best out of Gaulden, who will have to prove every day that he's the man for the job.
"This offseason I've really had a chance to show them through my preparation, my film work, my on-field drills, that I can play safety and nickel at this level," Gaulden said. "Starting in OTAs, I'm just going to continue to elevate my game."
View photos from the first practice of Carolina's organized team activities.