SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Captain Munnerlyn knows NFL cornerbacks need to have a short memory — and thick skin.
So when the undersized Munnerlyn hears the ceaseless criticism suggesting someone other than him should be the Carolina Panthers' No. 2 cornerback, he doesn't let it get to him.
"There's a lot of people out there who are like, 'We need another corner; Captain is nothing but a nickel corner,'" Munnerlyn said. "But my teammates and coaches know I'm going to fight out there every day for my team and go out and make plays. So when people say we need another corner I just let it fly by and go out and work my tail off."
There's no doubt the 5-foot-8 Munnerlyn needs to improve to keep his job.
He started 14 games for Carolina last season and failed to make an interception.
He was targeted 60 times according to STATS LLC and allowed a completed pass 65 percent of the time — the third-highest percentage in the league among cornerbacks targeted 60 or more times. Only New Orleans' Tracy Porter (68.1 percent) and Indianapolis Jacob Lacey (66.2) gave up a higher percentage of completions.
And while coach Ron Rivera responded with an emphatic "yes" when asked if he's comfortable with Munnerlyn as his starter this season, he also made it clear nothing is given.
"It's about the competition," Rivera said. "If somebody else steps up and can be a better corner for us or a better nickel for us, then that's what we will do. We will play the best players."
Carolina fans have long suggested there are better options.
Last year the popular suggestion was a trade for Philadelphia's Asante Samuel, who played under Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott with the Eagles. Some wanted Carolina (No. 20 in the AP Pro32) to sign a proven veteran free agent like Carlos Rogers.
While the Panthers did claim Darius Butler off waivers from New England last year, they have resisted the temptation to sign a big-name cornerback to go along with their No. 1 cover man, Chris Gamble.
Munnerlyn has been working with the starters at training camp, but was expected to be pushed by rookie Josh Norman and Brandon Hogan. However, both have missed valuable practice time with hamstring injuries.
Newcomer Nate Ness, once viewed as a training camp body, is one player who's stepped up and practiced well in his brief stint with the Panthers.
Munnerlyn knows in some respects he'll always be battling "that other guy" for a starting spot.
"It doesn't bother me at all," said Munnerlyn, who has started 23 games in three NFL seasons. "It actually helps me get better. When I hear that I'm like, OK, I just have to go out and prove I can be an every down corner. It doesn't bother me at all. I just go out and make plays."
The Panthers love Munnerlyn's feisty attitude. Despite his size, he's extremely physical and Rivera refers to him as the "Steve Smith of our defense."
You mean little and mean, coach?
"Yes," said Rivera.
Rare is the day at training camp where Munnerlyn and Smith, the team's 5-9 five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, aren't going one on one.
Last week they got into a brief shoving match on the field.
"They say we're just alike, that we both have little man's syndrome," Munnerlyn said with a laugh. "When he catches a pass on me, I'm mad. I'm like, 'No way.' Because I know he's going to spin the ball after he catches it. When he does that I want to kick it to the other side of the field."
Part of that is the chip Munnerlyn carries on his shoulder. He expected to go much higher in the 2009 NFL draft, but lasted until the seventh round.
"He has a little attitude," Rivera said. "But he's got the right kind of temperament. ... The thing I like about him is he shows up every day to work. He doesn't take plays off. You may get nicked here or there, but the thing that's interesting to me is he bounces back and just keeps going."
That's the thing about Munnerlyn. You can try to knock him down with pads or with words, but he only seems to come back fighting harder.
"People can say what they want, but I'm just going to go out and keep making plays and gain my coaches' trust," Munnerlyn said. "I'm going to give it my all and fight until the end. That's me."
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