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Armanti Edwards works to prove he can cut it in NFL
Carolina receiver’s dreadlocks are gone, but his skills and confidence have grown.
When many of the Carolina Panthers convened in Charlotte earlier this summer for player-only workouts during the NFL lockout, receiver Brandon LaFell couldn’t find Armanti Edwards.
“I see a guy just sitting on the bench with a hat on and I’m just talking like, ‘Man, Armanti’s never late. Armanti’s always on time,’” LaFell said. “Then he took the hat off, I’m like, ‘Oh, go ahead.’”
It was Armanti Edwards 2.0.
The dreadlocks, a part of Edwards since his senior year at Greenwood (S.C.) High, were gone – his first haircut since the sixth grade.
“You can ask any of my college buddies. I always said I was fixing to cut it. I was too scared to, so I finally decided to do it,” said Edwards, 23, who is beginning his second NFL season after a spectacular career at Appalachian State. “I didn’t regret it all.”
The new close-cut hairstyle is, in a way, symbolic of Edwards’ place in the Panthers’ new order. When the Panthers traded up to pick him in the second round in the 2010 draft, it created a ripple of controversy.
Edwards had led Appalachian State to two national titles and shocked the football world in September 2007 by guiding the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) Mountaineers to a 34-32 victory over Michigan, considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history.
He is the only player in NCAA history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards in a career. But some felt the skinny-legged quarterback didn’t fit in the NFL, where he was immediately converted into a receiver and punt returner.
It was a lost season in many ways for Edwards and the Panthers. He was overwhelmed from the outset, forced to learn a new position in a harsh environment exacerbated by mounting losses and an imminent coaching change. When he played – which wasn’t often - Edwards looked uncomfortable. He bobbled punt returns and caught just one pass for 7 yards.
Mostly, Edwards sat and watched, inactive in 12 games last season as the Panthers became the worst team in the NFL with a 2-14 record.
Now, there is a new-found optimism at training camp in Spartanburg, from the addition of No.1 draft pick Cam Newton, to a flurry of free agent signings last week and surprises like Edwards, who has stood out as a pass catcher and moved into consideration for a starting role.
“It’s a new start. New coaches, new playbook, new year. Put the first year behind me and start over,” said Edwards, who is 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds.
This time last year, Edwards was trying to adjust to his new football life. He wasn’t physically ready for the practice demands, especially the running, which sapped the spring from his legs. He didn’t know how to fight off opposing cornerbacks. He wanted to learn but it all came at him so fast.
“I knew the position was hard, but once you get out there you have to remember the play and try to remember how the coach wants you to beat the corner. It was all just jumbling up in my head on me,” Edwards said.
Intent on improving, Edwards spent a portion of the offseason working with former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad and his brother-in-law, Gari Scott, a former NFL punt returner and conditioning specialist. Each day, Edwards would catch at least 100 passes from a jugs machine that shoots out footballs, something Muhammad had done through his career.
They started with basics, polishing Edwards’ technique. Muhammad showed Edwards how to use his body to fend off defenders and how to get open against physical, aggressive cornerbacks. They talked about learning the game from the mental side, understanding the nuances of running pass routes and taking advantage of defenses.
All along, Edwards worked on his conditioning.
“I felt pretty confident he’d make some major improvements just on his base skills,” Muhammad said. “He has all the physical tools. I told him in the NFL everybody is big, strong and fast. For the guys who are successful, it’s all about the mental game.
“We showed him some of the stuff he needs to do to be successful. It will depend on how much work he puts in.”
Edwards also fielded 40 to 50 punts a day. Memories of two fumbled punt returns in the first home preseason game were hard to shake.
“I feel like I can catch them with my eyes closed now,” Edwards said.
One week through training camp, Edwards has been hard to miss. He’s been a popular target in seven-on-seven passing drills. He fields punts between sets with the offense.
Edwards even got a special visit from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who stopped to shake hands with him during his Wednesday visit to Wofford College, one of just a few players Goodell spoke with directly.
LaFell is rooming with Edwards at Wofford and said when they aren’t on the field or in meetings, they’re usually talking with quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton about the new offense they’re installing.
“We just do it all day,” LaFell said.
In the intense learning process for new coach Ron Rivera and his staff, Edwards is a player who’s captured his attention and his praise, more than once.
“The biggest thing last year, everybody said he didn’t look good in training camp. Well, the truth of the matter is Armanti had never practiced like a wide receiver ever. He had always practiced as a quarterback,” Rivera said.
“This year, he took it to heart and had a great offseason from what I’m being told and what I see. It looks to me as if he’s done those things. He’s not fading. His legs aren’t dead. Mentally, he’s not all over the place. It’s been a great step he’s taken and hopefully it will continue.
“We’re hoping, too, that it’s not a flash in the pan for the first few days, where he’s done a lot of good things and now he gets overwhelmed. We’re hoping he can continue to grow.”
When Rivera was asked Thursday if LaFell and David Gettis are the clear leaders for the No.2 receiver spot alongside veteran Steve Smith, he added Edwards’ name to the mix. What Rivera wants to see is how Edwards handles himself when the Panthers host the New York Giants in their preseason opener Aug. 13.
“With what Armanti has done and some of the things he’s shown us, he deserves an opportunity,” Rivera said. “We’ll find places to put him on the field. I’m real excited about it and real intrigued about the possibilities.”
By Ron Green Jr., The Charlotte Observer