Jerricho Cotchery, the Picture of a Perfect Panther
The Panthers have gotten everything from receiver Jerricho Cotchery that they hoped.
When the Panthers released the best player in their history in March, it took a week before they signed a new receiver. But Jerricho Cotchery wasn't meant to fill Steve Smith's shoes.
During his previous 10 NFL seasons, Cotchery was never the best wideout on either of his two teams. His purpose in Carolina certainly wasn't to succeed a legend.
"Since I was the first guy to sign here, everyone looked at it like, ‘Oh, he’s replacing Steve.’ I’m like, ‘We’re not even similar players, this guy’s a Hall of Famer,’" Cotchery said this week. "I wasn’t thinking about replacing anyone. That didn’t even cross my mind until people just kept bringing it up."
After signing Cotchery, the Panthers added Jason Avant, another veteran who was never more than a No. 3 receiver. The free agent additions were widely lampooned for a team that saw its top three wideouts — Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn — all go elsewhere.
But the Panthers wanted more from Cotchery and Avant than receptions. They were brought in to be part receiver, part mentor, part coach.
Unable to create much separation from defensive backs, Avant was released in November, ironically, so one of the guys he was helping could get more playing time.
After coming back from a midseason concussion, rookie Philly Brown caught a 47-yard touchdown against the Falcons in Week 11. Two days later, the Panthers parted ways with Avant. The move injected much-needed speed into the lineup, and importantly, one of the veterans remained.
"[Cotchery] has been nothing less than a miracle worker for us, especially young dudes coming in to try to adjust to this whole NFL life," Brown said. "He’s been like a big brother to the whole group. He's taken us under his wing, telling us what he’s done in his past — the mistakes and stuff — so we don’t make the same mistakes."
Brown and fellow rookie Kelvin Benjamin have stayed out of trouble off the field, and they've exceeded expectations on it. To find mistakes, you could look at Benjamin's 11 drops. But like most of the Carolina staff, Cotchery continues trying to calmly coach those out of the rookie.
Cotchery doesn't talk much. He doesn't do anything loudly. But he spends plenty of time doing precisely what the Panthers hoped — mentoring when he needs to.
"He’s a silent assassin, sort of speak. On the field and off the field, he’s the leader in that group," quarterback Cam Newton said. "He’s been doing a great job with leading such a young group. It’s been great to see those guys mature as the weeks go by, and a lot of that is credited to Jerricho."
Appropriately, Cotchery has had a quietly successful first year in Carolina. He caught 48 passes for 580 yards during the regular season, two receptions more and 22 yards fewer than he had last year in Pittsburgh. The big difference between the seasons is he's scored just once with the Panthers after racking up 10 touchdowns with the Steelers in 2013.
"If there’s one thing that we would like to see a little bit more of is us finding ways to use him a little bit more in the red zone," coach Ron Rivera said. "We know we’ve struggled there. We know we haven’t had the success we’ve wanted to have there, and that’s one of the things he did very, very well for Pittsburgh. That’s something I think we have to be better at. We’ve got to find more ways to use him."
For what it's worth, Cotchery's 10-touchdown season was an aberration. Before that, he scored just 20 in his previous nine years. So really, he's been exactly what the Panthers brought him in for: He's helped out the young guys, and he's been dependable.
Besides a drop in overtime against the Bengals, it's tough to think of a glaring error Cotchery has made this year. He's been especially sure-handed during the Panthers' win streak, catching 14 of his 15 targets, with the only incompletion coming on an overthrow from Newton that could have been a touchdown against the Saints.
Cotchery may be 32, but even the rookies aren't calling him 'old man' anymore.
“That was back in the day. Now we see up close and personal what we can do," Brown said. "He doesn't play like an old man. He plays like he’s our age."
When he signed his contract back in March, Cotchery committed to a two-year deal with the Panthers. He admits coaching could be in his future after football, but for at least another year, he intends to remain a player/coach.
"I came back down to finish it out. That’s my plan," Cotchery said. "We’ll see how these couple years go, but I came down here to win it and do something special for this organization. And the home team."