CHARLOTTE – Panthers safety Robert Lester said he isn’t angry at the teams that passed on him during the NFL draft.
He is anxious to show them he belongs in the league.
Lester will have that opportunity Sunday when he makes his professional starting debut against Eli Manning and the Giants.
Lester, who started 40 games at Alabama and helped the Crimson Tide to three BCS national championships, went undrafted in April and signed a free agent contract with Carolina. He didn’t make the final cut, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the team signed him to the practice squad following a strong final preseason game “just in case.”
As Rivera said Friday, “low and behold, just in case is Week 3.”
Rivera promoted Lester from the practice squad Tuesday and, with veterans Charles Godrey and Quintin Mikell ruled out, Rivera named him the starter Thursday.
“I’m not paying a lot of attention to not getting drafted,” Lester said. “The main thing that is bothering me is I want to go out there and prove that I can play football and that I belong in this league. I’m a competitor, and when somebody says you can’t do something I want to prove them otherwise.”
The knock on Lester coming out of Alabama was his lack of speed and his lack of athletic ability in coverage.
Rivera said that’s not something that bothered the Panthers.
“People talked about his speed, his speed, his speed or lack thereof, but it was never something we were very concerned with,” Rivera said. “We don’t see that as a major issue. It’s something that’s there, but we’re not going to put him in position to cover Victor Cruz one-on-one.”
But Manning will certainly test him.
The two-time Super Bowl champion already has thrown for more than 800 yards in two games, although the Giants have turned over the ball 10 times and, like the Panthers, they are 0-2 on the season.
Lester believes playing four years in the Southeastern Conference has prepared him well for the NFL, and he’ll be better off than some people think moving forward.
“It wasn’t a hard transition for me coming from the SEC,” Lester said. “I don’t think the speed of the game got too much faster.”