CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are slowly helping Carolina Panthers fans forget about Josh Norman.
Granted, it has taken some time and some agonizing growing pains.
After a rough start to the season due to injuries and the rookie learning curve, the team's second- and third-round draft picks have emerged as a positive in an otherwise disappointing 5-8 campaign.
''If they continue to grow at this pace, they'll be good football players for us,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ''... You like how physical they get with their hands. They play with vision. They break on the ball pretty good.''
The decision to part ways with Norman - whom the Panthers will face Monday night when they visit the Washington Redskins - wasn't a particularly popular one among the Carolina fan base.
General manager Dave Gettleman put the $13.9 million franchise tag on the All-Pro, then abruptly rescinded it, allowing Norman to become a free agent.
The Panthers paid dearly early on this season for that move.
Their pass defense was among the worst in the league after six games, and downright embarrassing at times.
Atlanta's Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers in a 48-33 Week 4 win over Carolina. Two weeks later, Drew Brees torched the Panthers secondary for 465 yards and four TDs in the Saints' 41-38 shootout victory.
After Julio Jones piled up 300 yards receiving against the Panthers, Norman told ESPN's The Dan Le Batard Show, ''You get what you pay for.''
Bradberry and Worley were part of the problem then, but have since worked to be become major cogs in the solution.
Carolina's best defensive game came last Sunday when it forced five interceptions and had five sacks in a 28-16 win over the San Diego Chargers. Worley, in particular, stood out with 10 tackles and his first interception.
''To watch Daryl play the way that he played - those are moments that will live with me forever,'' Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. ''It's kind of like your kids. It gives you chills because you say, `Gosh, he's getting it. He understands.'''
Rivera and McDermott rave about Bradberry, the team's more physical cornerback.
Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins can see why.
''I think they're playing well, especially when you factor in that they're rookies,'' Cousins said. ''It's hard to come into this league and play right away and understand coverages and concepts and play fast. Very impressive that they've been able to play at a high level as rookies. It's not easy to do.''
Unlike Norman, neither Bradberry or Worley is known as a trash-talker.
But that doesn't mean they lack confidence on the field. Bradberry believes he and Worley can be bookend starting cornerbacks for the Panthers for the next decade.
''That's the plan,'' Bradberry said.
Added Worley: ''That's the way everyone else sees us, so hopefully that picture is painted right.''
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who got a day off from practice on Wednesday, wouldn't compare either to Norman. But he said the improvement he's seen from the rookie tandem has been impressive.
''The one thing I can tell you is from OTAs to now, they are different players,'' Newton said. ''And that is what you need to see in this league. It is a production-based league. And if you're not producing then somebody is always looking for a better you.''
Newton nicknamed Bradberry ''Major James'' because he comes from a military family, although he said the Samford product has a ''goofy side'' most don't know about it.
''I got comfortable with the guys around here and started to loosen up a little bit,'' Bradberry said with a laugh.
Newton nicknamed Worley ''Lil Daryl.''
But he's come with some big plays of late.
''I feel like I am finally at the same stage I felt leaving college, where I feel like I've seen everything,'' said Worley, who played at West Virginia. ''Anything that is new to you, it's going to be like a whirlwind presented to you. That's how it is as a rookie, no matter who you are."
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