Success against Julio Jones could pay off for Panthers' James Bradberry

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones coming to town Sunday, it's a reminder of one of the best quotes in the history of the Carolina Panthers.

“Julio completes me," former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown show during the 2015 season before a game against Jones.

Stellar efforts defending Jones played a big role in Norman becoming the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history at the time with a five-year, $75 million deal from the Washington Redskins after that season.

Now the current Carolina player who wears Norman's No. 24 appears headed for a big payday, and his defense of Jones will likely be part of his contract negotiations.

James Bradberry has had some of his best efforts defending one of the NFL’s best receivers. That’s why the Panthers (5-4) are thankful he appears ready to return for Sunday’s game against Atlanta after missing last Sunday's loss in Green Bay with a groin injury.

Jones, with 751 career receptions for 11,522 yards and 55 touchdowns, has been targeted at least 10 times vs. eight different nearest defenders around the NFL in the past four seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, his 7.6 yards per attempt against Bradberry is the lowest among that group.

That average jumps to 13.4 against other Carolina defensive backs during that span.

Cha-ching.

“He’s setting himself up for that same payday [Norman got]," free safety Tre Boston said of Bradberry, a 2016 second-round pick out of Samford.

Bradberry hopes so, not just because of the way he defends Jones but also the way he plays the opponent’s top receiver every week.

“I wouldn’t say he completes me," Bradberry said of Jones. “But he definitely gets me going."

Bradberry’s effectiveness against Jones was highlighted during last year’s Week 2 loss to the Falcons. Jones was coming off a 10-catch, 169-yard game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Bradberry held him to five catches on nine targets for 64 yards and no touchdowns.

In their Week 6 matchup, Jones had a touchdown but was limited to four catches for 28 yards with Bradberry shadowing him.

Perhaps the best example of Bradberry’s value against Jones came in 2016, Bradberry's rookie season. In the first game, Bradberry left on the first series with a toe injury and Jones had 12 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown.

Fourteen weeks later, a healthy Bradberry limited Jones to four catches for 60 yards.

“James matches up well with Julio Jones," Panthers safety Eric Reid said. “That’s not something that’s easy to do."

Jones (6-foot-3, 220) is typically a focal point in the Atlanta passing attack, and he might be even more so this week with tight end Austin Hooper out (MCL sprain). Hooper leads the Falcons in receptions this season with 56, three more than Jones.

“He definitely keeps me up at night," Bradberry said of Jones.

Bradberry ranks Jones first among all the receivers he has faced, and he’s faced some great ones in New Orleans’ Michael Thomas, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans.

Bradberry limited Hopkins to five catches for 41 yards and no touchdowns and kept Evans out of the end zone twice this season. He faces Thomas again next week.

The reasons Bradberry does well against those receivers are much the same as they were for Norman. Bradberry is tall (6-1) and has long arms.

“It’s a tall task every week when you ask James to do certain things," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “So to have a guy like James, we feel very fortunate. We just think he has the right skill set, the right mental makeup."

Bradberry studied Norman’s games against Atlanta before his first matchup against Jones and tried to copy some of the things Norman did well. In 2015, Norman limited Jones to 10 catches for 117 yards and no touchdowns in two games.

Jones averaged nine catches and 125.2 yards per game in his other 14 contests.

Cha-ching. Cha-ching.

Now it might be Bradberry’s chance to cash in on his success against Jones.

“I’ve just been controlling what I can control," Bradberry said. “They haven’t made an offer or anything, so I’m just going to play ball."