According to veteran safety Tre Boston, "Thieves Avenue" is returning to the Carolina Panthers.
Boston is one of very few players in the Panthers' secondary that has multiple years of starting experience and despite the unit's youth, he feels pretty confident in how things have been going so far in training camp.
“We can move guys all the way around. We’re never in 'matchup threats' in our defense. We believe in our defense and we’re fast, whether that’s the linebacker position, corner position, safety position. Them being able to move around and guard anybody interchangeably, there’s never a down where we feel uncomfortable because we have these weapons and we’re so versatile to do different things with them and we plan on using that to our advantage.”
Being versatile is something that a player must have if he wants to see significant playing time in defensive coordinator Phil Snow's defense. He, and Matt Rhule both preach about players being "positionless" and in this spring's NFL Draft, they selected one of the most versatile secondary players available in the second round - Southern Illinois safety, Jeremy Chinn.
“He’s athletic, the sky's the limit," Boston said of Chinn. "He has the possibility to be the real deal, He reminds me a little bit of Shaq when Shaq first came in here. Shaq was the first rookie that I had seen that I was like ‘ooh, yeah, that guy’s a pro, that kid’s going to be special'. Chinn gives you that feel of being that way. He’s done a good job of learning, he’s got a lot of stuff on his plate, but as long as he takes it one day at a time and understands that he doesn’t have to do anything but his job, we plan on making it easy for him and let him fly around.”
Another pair of rookies in the Panthers' secondary are former West Virginia/XFL star Kenny Robinson and Florida International corner Stanley Thomas-Oliver, who were taken in the fifth and seventh rounds respectively. For these two, playing time may be hard to come by early in their career, but both have the potential to be quality NFL players. Right now, it's just about learning.
“They’re going to be really good players," Rhule said. "They’re talented, they can run, they’re coachable. In the back end right now early in camp, especially vs our offense, there’s a lot of things that they’re seeing, but they’re going to be good players. They just have to not worry about, 'Hey am I good or am I bad right now?' They just need to put their head down and work. They’ll look up one day here really soon and they’ll be really good players.”
Robinson played just about everywhere on the field during his two years at West Virginia. He started out at corner out of necessity, but moved to safety halfway through his freshman campaign and played lights out. His path to playing time may be much shorter than Thomas-Oliver's, who is still learning to play the corner position after starting his college career as a wide receiver.
The one player that seems to get lost in the shuffle thanks to all of the offseason additions is T.J. Green, the former Clemson safety who had a breakout season with the Tigers in 2015.
Since entering the league, Green has had his fair share of struggles and after his first two seasons with the Colts, his production really fell off the table. Much of that may have to do with teams just playing him at the wrong position. Matt Rhule talked earlier this week about where he thinks he can become a key contributor and find some success.
“We remember him as a player in college and I know people have tried to turn him into a safety and we thought with his size/speed, let’s train him at corner and if he goes to safety great, if he goes to nickel great. He’s had a really good offseason. He’s got all the talent in the world and he’s been really diligent about taking notes in the meetings. We know he has versatility and we know we can put him in a lot of different places, but anytime you have that kind of length at corner, you’re that tall, you’re that big, it’s a real bonus.”
The hard truth is that the Panthers are going to have to play some guys who may not be ready for significantly big roles, but will be forced into those roles due to a lack of depth and experience across the chart. There will be some growing pains with this unit, but the ceiling is also pretty high when you look at the newcomers and their ability to be playmakers down the road.
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