Cotchery, Avant not just about experience

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first thing you need to understand about Jerricho Cotchery is he didn't sign with the Carolina Panthers to replace Steve Smith. Had that been his goal he might have taken the No. 89 he'd worn for nine of his 10 seasons.

Cotchery also didn't sign just to be a leader and mentor for Carolina's young receivers, although those are words used most often to describe him. This isn't a retirement tour where he can sit back and enjoy what he's accomplished.

The same goes for Jason Avant.

"We'll do whatever we can to help this group get better, but at the same time we were brought here to make plays," Cotchery said. "So that's on our minds and that's what we're going to try to do each and every day to help this team win a championship, because that's what it's all about."

Cotchery turns 32 this month and Avant is 31. They understand a big reason they were brought in was to replace the experience of Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and help bring along a new group of receivers that includes first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State.

But as Cotchery noted, they also were brought in to make plays. The best way to lead is by example and performance, and that's what they've done during the first week of organized workouts.

From the outside looking in, it may appear the Panthers have taken a step back after releasing Smith and losing their next three receivers to free agency.

But in Cotchery and Avant they added a pair of receivers that caught a combined 84 passes for 12 touchdowns last season. The numbers aren't overwhelming, but in terms of touchdowns they had only two less than what Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. combined for in 2013.

Toss in Benjamin, free-agent signee Tiquan Underwood and returning young players Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin, and this potentially is a more talented group.

"If you're constantly looking around you can't see what's right before you," said Cotchery, who chose to wear No. 82. "What we have right before us is work to do. You can't be worried about what's being said on the outside.

"You have to put forth the work each and every day to help this team win a championship. If we focus on that, we'll be able to do what's necessary to help the team accomplish that."

Notice a theme? Work.

When asked how he would describe the mood in the wide receivers room, Cotchery didn't hesitate.

"Workmanlike," said Cotchery, who caught 10 touchdowns at Pittsburgh last season. "Guys really decided to work with each other and we know what we have to do as a group to help this team win ballgames."

That should come as no surprise. The Panthers have a position coach in Ricky Proehl who made a 17-year career out of working hard to perfect the little things it takes to win.

"He brings so much," Cotchery said of Proehl. "He's played in so many different offenses, he's played so many different [receiver] positions, like how can you not listen?"

Had the Panthers simply wanted experience to replace Smith, they could have relied on Proehl. But they needed players with experience that could make plays, which is why Cotchery and Avant were at or near the top of their free-agent shopping list.

"We have a coach that has played in this league a long time, and to have that type of wisdom at your disposal it's going to help not only young guys but older guys like myself," Cotchery said. "It's a great situation."

How good? Cotchery isn't ready to make any predictions, another sign of veteran savvy and attitude that the Panthers want to build around.

"You just want to continue to work and continue to develop," he said. "We'll see where it's at when the jets fly over the stadium. That's our approach."