Panthers' Jaycee Horn healthy, ready to shine in 2024?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers didn't have much to play for in their 2023 finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were assured the NFL's worst record with only two wins and much of the focus was on who would be the next head coach.

But cornerback Jaycee Horn was dialed in, helping hold Mike Evans to one catch for six yards after the Pro Bowl receiver caught the game's first two passes against Donte Jackson.

That was enough to make defensive pass game coordinator Jonathan Cooley believe the No. 8 overall pick of the 2021 draft still could be one of the NFL's best at his position.

"How he was able to dominate his matchup,'' Cooley recalled this past week after an offseason practice. "What he has is rare. He has size. He has speed. He has instincts and he's very tough.

"The one thing that separates him from a lot of guys is his competitive drive. I think he can be the best.''

What Horn (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) doesn't have is a history of being healthy. His 22 games played out of a possible 51 are the second fewest by a cornerback selected in the top 10 of the draft over the past 20 years.

Only Dee Milliner, taken No. 9 by the New York Jets in 2013, has played fewer (21). Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick of the 2020 draft by the Detroit Lions, has played 25.

Like Horn, both were plagued by injuries. The future of Okudah, now with the Atlanta Falcons, remains promising. Milliner's career ended in 2016 after the Jets opted not to pick up his fifth-year option.

The Panthers recently picked up Horn's option, and for that, he is grateful. Horn also knows this a pivotal year.

"I still feel like I'm one of the best DBs in this league,'' he said. "I've just got to be out there to show it.''

Horn's presence for the entirety of this year's offseason program hasn't gone unnoticed.

"He's been the clearest mentally that he's been,'' Cooley said. "He seems free. He seems excited to perform. ... He's been in a fantastic mindset.''

Horn also has been more vocal, taking on a leadership role in the secondary that was previously held by Jackson, a salary cap casualty.

"He loves to talk and he loves to kind of bring that edge, that energy,'' new head coach Dave Canales said. "The defense makes a couple of good plays and Jaycee is kind of letting everybody know.

"Jaycee feels like he's in a really good place in terms of his confidence.''

Horn wasn't available for OTAs last year after suffering a Grade 2 pedal ankle sprain while working out on his own. He then suffered a non-contact hamstring injury in a Week 1 loss to the Falcons and missed the next 10 games.

It was reminiscent of his rookie season when he missed the final 14 games after fracturing three bones in his right foot during a Week 3 win against the Houston Texans.

Horn has changed his offseason workout program in an attempt to stay healthy. He's doing more weightlifting, as he did in college at South Carolina, to focus on strength.

"Obviously, what I did the years before didn't work,'' Horn said. "It could be some unluckiness, but [I'm] just trying to switch it up and start from ground zero and build my body back up.''

Rookie wide receiver Xavier Legette called Horn one of the best corners he faced in college during their two years together at South Carolina.

"And I feel he's gotten a lot smarter with his game,'' Legette, the 32nd pick of the first round, said. "He'll be calling out the routes and calling out the reads before we even get totally lined up. ... And he just has the perfect technique.''

Legette credits Horn's technique for taking his game to another level in college.

"He's one of the best corners that I ever played with just by how patient he is,'' Legette said. "That's forcing me to have to work on a release. I can't just work the same releases on him.

"He's real aggressive at the line, so that's forcing me to use my hands and have technique to be able to get away from him.''

Some numbers, per NFL Next Gen Stats, indicate Horn has the potential to be a top NFL corner, despite a limited sample size. Horn has:

  • Allowed an opposing QB passer rating of 71.7. Among 194 defensive backs to be targeted 75-plus times since 2021, that ranks 18th.

  • Allowed an average of 2.9 yards after the catch, which ranks 19th among that same group.

  • Allowed 6.5 yards per target. The league average for defensive backs since 2021 is 7.5.

There are plenty of examples for Horn to believe his future remains bright, beginning with his dad, former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn. The elder Horn didn't start an NFL game for five seasons after leaving college and didn't play football at all during those first two years. He became a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Former Carolina teammate Christian McCaffrey, the eighth pick of the 2017 draft, played only 10 games in 2020 and 2021 due to injuries, then was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 2022. He has ranked first in total yards from scrimmage (3,233) and touchdowns from scrimmage (31) since, making the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons.

"It felt good [they picked up the option], just knowing they believe in me, see the work I put in,'' Horn said. "Now it's just staying on the field, controlling what I can control and just playing good football.''