SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Remember that “Thieves Avenue” sign that last season hung over the lockers of the Carolina Panthers secondary at Bank of America Stadiu? The one that made it across the country for Super Bowl 50?
It’s back in place.
— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) February 1, 2016
Just because the secondary won’t have three — cornerback Josh Norman, cornerback Charles Tillman and strong safety Roman Harper — of the four players that started most of last season doesn’t mean their replacements can’t live on “Thieves Avenue” or be as good as the group that earned the right to hoist the sign after leading the NFL in takeaways with 39.
“We are the thieves and why does it change?” safety Kurt Coleman said on Thursday. “Whether I’m here, whether I’m not here, the mantra is still here. We want to lead the league in takeaways. We want to be very effective in keeping people from throwing the ball deep.
“We have different people. That’s OK. I’m excited. We’re going to change over. We’re just growing, and I love it.”
The secondary will be noticeably different. Norman signed with Washington after the Panthers rescinded his franchise tag. Tillman retired after Carolina showed no interest in re-signing him. Harper returned to New Orleans after not being re-signed.
The biggest loss was Norman, but Coleman said it’s too early to tell how big that will be. He’s confident veteran Robert McClain or one of the three rookie draft picks — James Bradberry, Daryl Worley or Zack Sanchez — will fill that role.
He reminded this unit wasn’t about one player.
“Josh is a great player . . . A great person, a great player,’’ Coleman said. “Why would I doubt that Robert McClain, James Bradberry, Daryl Worley …why can’t they perform just as well?’’
“Josh had a great season, but it took Josh four seasons to have a superstar-caliber season. … In this defense, if you work hard and have faith in yourself … you’ll be successful.’’
Coleman is a prime example. He was considered a journeyman player after five seasons between Philadelphia and Kansas City. He started only three games with the Chiefs in 2014 before signing with Carolina prior to the 2015 season.
He had a career-best seven interceptions, earning a three-year, $17 million extension that he signed on Wednesday.
“We’re not looking to do whatever outside the realm of our defense,’’ Coleman said. “If you do your job you will make plays. That’s why everyone that comes to this defense is successful.’’
The secondary has been a concern at Carolina going into each of the past three seasons. It’s also been an area that general manager Dave Gettleman seemingly cobbled together piecemeal.
But in each of those years the secondary has played above outside expectations. Coleman doesn’t see why this year will be any different.
“I’m excited,’’ he said. “Everyone is counting us out in the back, but I think we’re going to rise to the challenge.’’
Coleman’s role will change. He’ll play more strong safety than free safety, with Tre Boston moving into the free safety spot.
So in reality, there’ll be a different player at all four base secondary positions than those who started most of 2015.
“We don’t have a superstar on the back end,’’ Coleman said. “We have a lot of good players that are willing to work. We’re going to make plays back there.’’
Locking Coleman down long term quietly was a big move. The Ohio State product not only is a good fit for the system, as Gettleman said, but a good fit in terms of his unselfish demeanor.
“He does everything we ask,’’ Gettleman said. “He has a veteran presence in that [defensive backs] room , which is important with Roman not here.
“It was important. We worked really hard at it, both sides, and we’re thrilled that he’s here long term.’’
The “Thieves Ave.” sign appears to be staying long term as well.
“Thieves Avenue is where we live,” Coleman said. “We are the thieves, and why does it change?”