CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Josh Norman was a rookie cornerback out of tiny Coastal Carolina in 2012, but that didn’t stop the Carolina Panthers fifth-round pick from challenging veteran wide receiver Steve Smith in practice and then bragging about his efforts afterwards.
To the point that Smith felt disrespected.
“For a young guy, he’s coming out and he’s playing well,” Smith told reporters at the time. “But as far as how much swagger and [how] he loves to compete, I look at it like all the other veterans — May and June you just kind of cruise a little bit just to get through.
“Once late July, August comes, he’s going to learn very quickly this isn’t Coastal Carolina. I look forward to camp.”
This confrontation came to mind on Saturday as the Panthers completed their 2018 NFL draft.
First-round pick D.J. Moore, a wide receiver out of Maryland, personifies the swagger with which Smith practiced and played with from the time he entered the league as a third-round pick in 2001 until he retired after the 2016 season.
Whether it’s running over a linebacker or coming back two plays after an injury that might have sidelined another player for a week, Moore exudes confidence and toughness.
Second-round pick Donte Jackson, a 5-foot-11, 178-pound cornerback out of LSU, personifies the chip that drove Norman to rebound from being benched early in his career to making the Pro Bowl following the 2015 season.
Asked who was the fastest defensive back at the NFL combine, Jackson didn’t hesitate to say, “Me.”
Moore and Jackson might not produce some of the epic battles and jawing that Smith and Norman did in practice, but they most certainly will compete at the same high level.
And both will play with swagger and a chip on their shoulders.
Beyond height, weight and 40-yard dash time, the swagger that drives competition to the highest level was something the Panthers looked for in this draft. That was particularly true at the top of the draft in Moore and Jackson, who are expected to contribute immediately.
“On the defensive side it’s something you certainly look at, especially at defensive back,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We think these guys can come in and bring a little attitude. You want that from your team, and you want to be one of those teams that guys think about who they’re playing against.”
This by no means was a sexy or flashy draft for Carolina. There weren’t any big names that jumped off the board and said this player is going to be a star.
It was a draft that should create competition at key positions that lacked it, specifically wide receiver, cornerback and safety. It was a draft that brought a level of cockiness back into the locker room that hasn’t been there since Norman had the franchise tag rescinded following the 2015 season.
“I think we’re getting back to that,” Rivera said.
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This draft also was about adding speed. Moore had the fifth-fastest 40 time among wide receivers at the NFL combine, with a time of 4.42 seconds. Jackson tied for the top 40 time at cornerback at 4.32. Fourth-round pick Ian Thomas of Indiana tied for the fourth-fastest 40 at tight end at 4.74.
“He’s just flat out speed off the edge, and he can get to the quarterback,” general manager Marty Hurney said.
So the Panthers addressed speed and checked a lot of boxes at positions of need. They also selected players that will bring a swagger.
Nobody in this class will bring that more than Jackson, who has been overcoming the odds as an undersized defensive back his entire career.
“It’s very important,” he said. “And, not only do I think it’s important for one person to have that swagger and attitude, I think it’s important for every defensive back to have that swagger and attitude.”
The Panthers will need that while facing some of the league’s best quarterbacks and receivers in the NFC South. Much of what they did on both sides of the ball in the draft was to keep up with New Orleans, Atlanta and even Tampa Bay.
Whether they accomplished that remains to be seen. New Orleans and Atlanta made moves that will help them be Super Bowl contenders immediately.
“We have to be aware of that and we do have to be able to match it, but this is not really about one team as much as this is about what we’re seeing as a trend in the league right now,” Rivera said.
The Panthers also saw they needed to match some of the swagger they had in the past, particularly the 15-1 2015 season that ended in a Super Bowl berth. Between free agency and the draft, they believe they’ve gotten some of that back.
“That’s a very good thing for us, and I’m pretty excited about these young guys coming in to compete,” Rivera said. “It’s about competition. We’re going to be compete, and we’re going to play the best guys.”