EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Captain Munnerlyn flashed his wide smile when the subject of Carolina predictably came up.
The Minnesota cornerback will play against his former team this Sunday, a rite that any NFL player who switches sides through free agency would be eager for. There can be no denying that this will be an emotional game for him.
”I’m sure I’ll be a little edgy, a little chippy,” Munnerlyn said. ”But at the same time, I’m just ready to play.”
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Leaving the Panthers was difficult, he said, considering their confidence in a 5-foot-9, 195-pound seventh-round draft pick who flourished into a hard-nosed player in the slot in the nickel package and set the franchise record for interception returns for touchdowns with five.
”They came in the seventh round and drafted little old Captain Munnerlyn and gave me a chance go out there and play,” Munnerlyn said. ”I’m very thankful for that organization for allowing me to take that opportunity, but, hey, I’m a Minnesota Viking now. They took my career to the next level.”
Badly needing more experience and toughness at that inside coverage position, the Vikings gave Munnerlyn a three-year contract with a maximum value of $11.25 million.
He’s made a few mistakes and been beaten on some long passes, but has otherwise given this team a valuable presence in a vastly improved secondary. He has two interceptions. With Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson making progress at the outside cornerback positions, Munnerlyn has been a capable mentor, too.
”I started off a little slow trying to feel everybody out, feel the defense out. But at the same time I feel like I’m getting better each and every week, feeling this cornerback role, nickel role,” Munnerlyn said.
The Vikings gave up the second-most yards passing in the league last season. They’re seventh in that category this year.
Munnerlyn in particular has taught Rhodes and Robinson how to play more physically in coverage, trying to disrupt a receiver’s rhythm without committing a penalty. His mere presence has also allowed Robinson to shift to the outside after struggling out of position in the slot last season.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that Munnerlyn has been missed. The Panthers haven’t been nearly as effective defending the pass as they were while going 12-4 last year. They have allowed 20 touchdowns through the air, 24th in the league, after allowing just 17 last season, the third-fewest in the NFL. They’ve plummeted from sixth to 26th in yards.
Bene Benwikere was their fifth-round draft pick out of San Jose State, but he hurt his ankle in the fifth game of the year and has not played since. He was supposed to replace Munnerlyn as the nickel cornerback.
”Because we’ve missed him, we’ve missed Captain. That’s the truth of the matter,” Rivera said. ”Captain was a guy who did some really good things for us.”
Particularly that tenacity.
”He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around. He’s got a good sense and feel for the game,” Rivera said. ”He’s a different kind of guy. He’s his own person. He works hard at his craft. He wants to do things the right way. He wants to do things well. I’ve got a lot of respect for how hard he works and how tough he is as a player.”
That respect wasn’t unanimous, apparently. Panthers cornerback Josh Norman told the Charlotte Observer last week that Munnerlyn was uninterested in helping him as they competed for playing time. Norman accused Munnerlyn in that interview with the newspaper of belittling him and essentially being a bad teammate.
”It was a slap in the face that he would come out and say that I’m the type of guy that didn’t try to help him and all that,” Munnerlyn said, adding: ”He’s got to worry about our offense. I’ve got to worry about their offense. So I don’t know where it came from, and I’m sure I won’t say too much to him about it.”
NOTES: Not participating in practice Wednesday were TE Chase Ford (hamstring/foot), FS Harrison Smith (shoulder/ankle), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (knee), RB Jerick McKinnon (back) and DT Sharrif Floyd (knee). Coach Mike Zimmer said Floyd will return to the lineup Sunday. … RT Phil Loadholt will have surgery Friday to repair his torn left pectoral muscle. He’ll likely need six weeks with his arm in a sling, but should be at full strength for training camp next summer. For now, he’s resigned to adviser status for his friends on the offensive line, to watch film or whatever else. ”They’re always welcome at my house,” Loadholt said.
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