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Panthers hope WR Cotchery eases the loss of Smith

AP - Sports

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -- Jerricho Cotchery doesn't mind being ''the old guy'' on the Panthers wide receiver corps - just as long as he's the productive old guy.

The 32-year-old Cotchery realizes the team's younger wide receivers are looking to him for experience and occasional words of wisdom given his 10 seasons in the NFL. Cotchery is good with all of that, but said his primary concern right now is proving to his new team he can play at an elite level.

''I want to be known as a guy who can help individuals - not just on the field, but off the field as well,'' Cotchery said. ''That's fine with me. But that doesn't get you anywhere in the NFL. Teams don't bring you in to be counselors or anything of that nature. They want you to come in and contribute and make plays and help the team win.''

Cotchery was brought in as an unrestricted free agent to replace Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver and a fan favorite.

Smith caught 836 passes for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns during his 13 seasons with the Panthers. But the fiery Smith wore out his welcome in Carolina and the Panthers released him this offseason in a move that surprised many observers considering he was still a productive receiver, even at 35.

''We needed to (sign Cotchery) because we lost Steve,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ''You lose a veteran player and you have to replace with a veteran player. It's going to be hard to replace (Smith) but I think we can do it with some of the guys we brought in.''

Cotchery has never been a dominant No. 1 receiver in the league during his time with the Jets and Steelers, but the Panthers aren't necessarily looking for that type of player.

Cotchery proved last season he can still be productive, catching a career-high 10 TD passes working with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh while seeing plenty of action in three-receiver sets.

He's been running with the first team in Carolina alongside first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin so far in training camp at Spartanburg's Wofford College.

''He's not as dynamically vertical as Steve was but again he's still a good route runner and a good pass catcher,'' Rivera said of Cotchery.

When Cotchery isn't trying to impress coaches with his route running he's normally on the sideline talking with the team's young receivers, describing how to run a certain route or where to be on a given play.

''Young guys do seem to latch on to him,'' Rivera said.

When asked about his experience, Cotchery laughed and said ''I feel comfortable being the old guy. It's crazy how it's worked out for me. Even in my third year I was considered the old guy. So I feel comfortable with it and helping the guys in any way I can to get better.''

Carolina's wide receivers have taken widespread criticism this offseason after general manager Dave Gettleman cut Smith and allowed Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon to leave via free agency.

Along with Cotchery, the Panthers brought in Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood and drafted Benjamin, who helped Florida State to a national championship. Cotchery said he understands why Carolina's receivers aren't getting the respect, but doesn't seem overly concerned.

''I like this group,'' he said.

Cotchery's primary goal at training camp is getting on the same page with quarterback Cam Newton.

He said Newton was one of the reasons he signed with the Panthers on a five-year, $8 million contract that included a $2.25 million signing bonus. He likened him to Roethlisberger at the time, saying Newton has the potential to be a great NFL quarterback that people will remember for a long time.

''There's a confidence he brings to the huddle, that he brings to the team that you know you're going to be OK,'' Cotchery said. ''That's what I've seen in the great ones.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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