An injured star, and a bevy of untested players performing well above their ability. The cornerback position for the Carolina Panthers in 2012 should have been an unmitigated disaster - yet it wasn't. The secondary will be in flux as the organization will almost assuredly move on without a long-term veteran.
The team screwed up. Entering week one, the depth at cornerback was so poor, that it's inexcusable how little talent the roster had. Chris Gamble is one of the league's most underrated talents, but after that it was a wasteland. Yes, there were rookies with talent, and some unproven players -- but overall the Panthers boasted the league's worst stable of corners. When Chris Gamble went down after four weeks, lost for the season, the logical conclusion was utter disaster. A defense already struggling to stop teams would have no answer, and young players would be asked to play beyond their years. Ultimately it was Sean McDermott, and the rest of the coaching staff who patched the unit together, turning them into a surprisingly effective secondary.
The fifth round rookie was a planet - expectations are criticisms were his satellites. Purely a victim of circumstance, Norman was expected to do too much, and when he under-delivered he was chided. Ultimately this is the problem of fan perception, and the team asking him to do too much.
Norman played as well as you'd expect a fifth round rookie to play. Over-confident in his abilities, he fell for double-moves, and got caught out of position. This is part of the learning process, and proof positive the Panthers were foolish for relying on him to start from week one. Norman was talked about in hushed tones -- 'the rookie who stopped Smitty', but no sooner did this leak out that the veteran receiver made him look foolish in Spartanburg.
There were highs too - Norman plays with a chip on his shoulder, and a lot of physicality. He's not afraid to bump at the line of scrimmage, and shows that the game isn't too big for him. This was an immensely good draft pick by the Panthers, and there's not much reason to be too down on him. Norman needs time to develop, which he'll now have in his second season.
It's too tempting to give him a poor grade because he failed to live up to insane expectations. In Spartanburg I saw a very promising player, but didn't understand the effusive praise he was getting as the next ‘great one'. I suspect a lot of this was due to desperation - yearning to see the Panthers get a draft hit.
Josh Norman played really well for a fifth-round pick asked to start immediately. I am grading him as such.
Relegated to the nickel spot, then moved back into the starting lineup - Munnerlyn's season was a mixed bag. There were some ups, and downs, but he's still far better in the slot than he is outside covering wide receivers. Where he struggles in 20+ yards downfield, but in compact spaces he plays very well. Entering a contract year, it remains to be seen what the Panthers will do with Munnerlyn. It's going to be a difficult decision with promising corners behind him on the depth chart.
For what he was asked to do, Thomas was the Panthers best cornerback who was on the roster all season. He played inside, outside, special teams - wherever Carolina needed him, he was there. Granted, the defense didn't ask him to do a lot, but there's something to be said for always performing well when asked.
As the season progressed, Thomas got better and better. Now he'll be competing for third CB spot, possibly becoming the team's long-term answer at nickel.
I have no idea why the Cleveland Browns cut him, but their loss is Carolina's gain. While only playing in ___ games in 2012, Dockery was the cornerback who made the most impact. He's a big-bodied, physical corner who was thrust into playing time from nowhere. It should have been a terrible experiment, but he thrived.
Dockery most noticeably increased his value in the red zone - where he showed amazing poise in goal line situations. Young players get into penalty situations, and tend to rough receivers too much - but this wasn't the case.
It will be fantastic to see how he develops over a full off-season, and through a full training camp.