CHARLOTTE — Spend any amount of time talking with new Carolina Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and it quickly becomes evident he couldn’t be happier where he is at this point in his career.
Everything seems to have lined up perfectly for Cotchery, who turns 32 in a week, both professionally and personally.
He’s coming off a season where he had a career-high of 10 touchdowns with Pittsburgh, which led to a nice new contract that will pay him $5 million over two years. He’s closer to his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., which will allow his family to watch him in person for the first time in years. He returns to the same state where he went to college and his wife’s from the area.
While all those mentioned are important to his well being, there’s one very important aspect as to why he chose to play with Carolina over the Steelers.
"All of those things factored into it," he said. "But at this point in time in your career, you want to be playing for a team that’s competing for something. I felt like Pittsburgh had that and they had some lumps last year, but they’re ready to compete. So, it was going to be tough leaving that.
"But once I came down here and I realized they were interested, and my wife if from here (Rocky Mount), the transition wasn’t going to be as hard. But obviously you’ve got to get something done contract-wise, and they were able to put something out there that made me feel comfortable leaving the situation that I was in. All of those things play a role into making the choice, but first and foremost you want to be playing for something. "
However, as a 10-year veteran, being a star at N.C. State, where he set a school record with 200 receptions, and the departure of star and fan favorite Steve Smith, there are great expectations for Cotchery from fans.
But he will quickly tell you he’s not the new version of Smith and that the Panthers don’t want him to be.
"They said we want you to come here and help us win some more ballgames," Cotchery said. "That’s what it’s about. It isn’t about any one guy. It’s about the Panthers and the Panthers moving forward and trying to reach their ultimate goal. It wasn’t about replacing anyone.
"They like what I brought to the table on-and off-the-field-wise when it comes to leadership and other things."
Cotchery and the other receivers for Carolina come into a very unique situation with the departure of the team’s top four wide receivers. There’s literally not one returning receiver that had a catch for the team last year.
In fact, when Cotchery signed with the Panthers on March 20, he increased the total of team receptions at that position from three to 440.
Oddly enough, though, Cotchery says having a completely brand new receiving corps is actually a good thing.
"I knew when I came in that a lot of us weren’t here last year," he said. "But at the same time, when you have a bunch of new guys in it allows you to grow closer as a group and you get to establish chemistry a lot faster, because you’re working and trying to get to know each other.
"You don’t have guys that have been here for a long time and you’re trying to get inside their circle. You can tell by the way we work with each other and talk with each other that it’s a close group already. It’s helped us grow as a group. We communicate a lot more than other teams might."
Last season with Pittsburgh, Cotchery played in the slot position, where he exploded with 10 touchdowns. In his previous four seasons, he had seven touchdowns combined.
He says there’s a very good reason why that happened.
"Just look at the situation," he said. "When I first got there, I was the fifth guy, but I wanted to go to that organization and play for coach (Mike) Tomlin and be able to line up with Ben Roethlisberger. I’d do the same thing all over, because it was a great experience for me. But I didn’t play those first few years, that’s the bottom line. But last year, I was the slot guy and I played a lot more and had an opportunity to make more plays."
He knew if he’d stayed with the Steelers that those same opportunities to make plays would likely still be there. But there was just something about Carolina that made him ready for a new challenge.
"It was going to be tough to pull me out of Pittsburgh, because that’s a great place to be," Cotchery said. "But once I came down here, there was only going to be one place that could pull me away from there and it was this place. I just felt a great comfort level and I just felt like the team is headed in the right direction and I just wanted to be a part of it."