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Panthers cash in with undrafted free agent Jeremy Cash

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers didn’t draw particularly high praise for their selections during three days of the NFL draft, but shortly after it ended they cashed in.

In Jeremy Cash, that is.

The safety/linebacker out of Duke was one of seven players signed by Carolina as undrafted free agents. He was rated by many as the top undrafted player, and some pundits had projected him as high as the second or third round.

The Panthers also added Tulsa wide receiver Keyarris Garrett, rated by some among the top 10 undrafted players.

But Cash, at least on paper, was the real prize. Twenty teams attempted to sign him after the draft. He narrowed it down to Carolina and Cincinnati because both talked to him about playing a specific role as a hybrid in subpackages.

The relationship Cash developed with Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb over lunch after a private workout prior to the draft gave Carolina the edge.

Plus, signing with the Panthers meant moving only a couple of hours down the road from Durham to Charlotte.

“They’re a winning ballclub and it’s right in the backyard in Charlotte,’’ Cash said of the reigning NFC champion. “I already had my Duke fans. Now I have my Panthers fans.’’

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said getting Cash was “big for us.’’ In the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, they got somebody who can fill a specific niche in nickel packages.

“We play so much nickel package now, to have a guy with his ability, especially up in the box, it could be a beneficial thing for us,’’ he said. “There’s some things we think he can do for us, whether it’s a safety up in the box or a nickel for us.

“We feel very fortunate to have him on the team.’’

Cash has gotten past not being drafted after what he described as three nerve-racking days waiting for his phone to ring.

He still hasn’t gotten a great explanation for why it didn’t, leaving him to wonder if his injuries after the regular season were a factor or if it was something else.

On paper, Cash looked totally draftable.

He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year over Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Louisville tackle Sheldon Rankins and Clemson end Shaq Lawson.

Those three were gone by the draft’s 19th pick, with Ramsey going No. 5 overall to Jacksonville.

Cash had 332 tackles, 38 tackles for loss, eight sacks, five interceptions and nine forced fumbles in three seasons for Duke after transferring from Ohio State.

“It was unfortunate,’’ Cash said of not being drafted. “I thought I put myself in the best position to be drafted as high as possible, but obviously I didn’t.’’

Injuries were a concern. Cash missed Duke’s bowl game with a wrist injury and the Senior Bowl with a groin injury. He didn’t participate in drills at the NFL combine because of a hamstring issue.

He wasn’t 100 percent when the Panthers and nine other teams watched him in a private workout.

But as Cash said after transferring from college football powerhouse Ohio State to basketball powerhouse Duke, “If you can play, they’ll find you.''

It just took a couple of days longer than he hoped.

“You anticipate one thing from talking to your agent and what scouts have written up about you,’’ Cash said. “But ultimately the decision is above my pay grade.’’

Cash has been compared to Arizona Cardinals standout Deone Bucannon, a first-round pick in 2014 who was turned from a safety/linebacker to a “moneybacker.’’

This past season Bucannon started 16 games, collecting an interception, three forced fumbles, three sacks and 109 tackles.

The Panthers don’t use the term “moneybacker,’’ but perhaps “Cashback’’ will be coined.

“They like the versatility I bring to their ballclub,’’ Cash said. “Some of the things I did at Duke they’re going to implement at Carolina in some of their subpackages. They like tweeners.’’

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis was a safety out of Georgia when Carolina selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft. He was a Pro Bowl selection this past season and is on his way to becoming one of the greatest players in team history.

Carolina selected safety/linebacker Shaq Thompson in the first round of the 2015 draft.

“These guys can come in on subpackages and give the offensive playcallers a different look,’’ Cash said.

For Cash, that could mean covering tight ends or big slot receivers, or blitzing the quarterback.

In other words, pretty much what Cash did at Duke.

“One player I love to watch and model my game after is Kam Chancellor,’’ Cash said of Seattle’s four-time Pro Bowl safety. “He just goes and finds the ball, no matter where it is, on every play. He’s going to make his presence known whenever he’s on the field, and that’s how I carry myself as well.’’

If he pulls that off, then ultimately Cash will cash in.