Carolina Panthers free safety Sherrod Martin lost his dreadlocks this offseason in his first haircut since high school eight years ago.
“Probably only people from my hometown have seen me with a low cut,” said Martin, who is from Griffin, Ga. “Some guys were shocked I did it. I got a few compliments. I ain’t never been a bad-looking guy, so …”
Martin looked bad a few times last season when he missed crucial tackles as the Panthers’ last line of defense. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Martin’s whiffs were obvious to fans because they occurred in the open field.
Just as obvious was the Panthers putting Martin on alert this winter when they acquired free agent safeties Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith to compete for Martin’s spot. Martin said he did not necessarily feel challenged by the moves.
“When teams sign guys, they sign guys that they feel like can help the team. That’s the most important thing,” Martin said last week after a practice. “As far as my position, it’s about what I do. I’ve just got to come out and (be) me.”
Martin, a second-round draft pick in 2009, has developed a reputation as a big hitter since becoming a starter in 2010. At times, Martin’s hits have crossed the line from big to what opponents have called dirty.
Martin was fined twice in 2010 for illegal hits – one of which was featured on a video distributed by the NFL to educate players on the types of hits that would draw penalties and fines. Rivera said Martin gets out of position at times going for a huge hit instead of wrapping up a back or receiver with a sure tackle.
According to Pro Football Focus, Martin missed a tackle every 4.5 attempts last season, which ranked among the bottom seven safeties in the league.
“A big part of the game that I messed up on last year was tackling. That’s something I’ve got to improve on,” Martin said. “Other than that, just coming out and working. Just constantly getting better and putting myself in better position and just finish plays.”
Rivera said Martin was not the only Panther who struggled with the most fundamental of defensive skills. Strong safety Charles Godfrey’s rate of a missed tackle every 4.9 attempts (according to Pro Football Focus) was only slightly better than Martin’s.
Rivera believes Martin’s time in the classroom this offseason – which he didn’t get last year because of the lockout – has helped.
“I think he’s an aggressive young player that’s learned, and learned some valuable lessons,” Rivera said. “The best thing that happened to Sherrod last year was he played. And I think we can build on those types of situations.”
Martin, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal, has continued to work with the first-team defense. He is trying to move past last season, though there have been subtle and not-so-subtle reminders this winter.
In a Q&A with the Observer, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson offered this assessment when asked what he thought of Martin: “I think he plays safety.”
Martin said he saw the comment, but didn’t try to read the tea leaves.
“I saw it. I’ve still got to come out and work regardless,” Martin said. “As far as what he meant by it, y’all gotta ask him. I’m not taking something this way or that way. I’m just coming in each day getting better and putting in work.”