James Bradberry remembers when he became a cornerback. It happened suddenly. His youth football team was in a scrimmage against a crosstown rival and his team was missing some players, so the coach had a need to fill.
"He threw me in at cornerback and I got a pick in the practice and, oh yeah, I was hooked since then," Bradberry says from his locker at the NovaCare Complex. "I was a receiver before that, but once I played cornerback, I don't know, I just loved it. It's cooler to be on the offensive side of the ball when you're a kid because you get more touches and all the glory and the hype, but on defense, it was just something I loved. I didn't have to depend on a quarterback to make plays.
"I could be on my own and rely on myself to make plays."
And Bradberry has done that – all the way through high school in Pleasant Grove, Alabama and then college at Samford and, finally, the NFL. Bradberry is a combination of physical skills (he's 6-1, 212 pounds) and mental acuity and his instincts for the game are innate. There is technique to be considered – and it is extremely important – and then there is the ability to just shed the previous play, good or bad, in an instant.
A cornerback can play pinpoint well for 75 plays, but if he gives up a few completions down the field, well, it's going to be a long night with the media scrutiny and the game tape to follow.
"Playing cornerback, you can have three bad plays within the game and that can ruin the whole game for you and you can be looked at as a different-caliber player," he said. "You have to have a strong mental mindset and you also have to be able to let go of things. It's not like you don't care, but you just can't carry a play into the next snap. It's like having a one-track mind.
"And that is something that you aren't born with. You have to develop it and understand that having an interception, that can change an entire game. To be a great cornerback you have to be able to run and have agility as well and you have to be willing to tackle and support the run and not a lot of guys possess that. You have to be the whole package."
Bradberry was the whole package by the time the Carolina Panthers made him a second-round draft pick in 2016 and he was an immediate starter in a division that featured star receivers like Julio Jones (Atlanta, now with Philadelphia) and Michael Thomas (New Orleans) and Mike Evans (Tampa Bay). Bradberry was a coveted free agent in 2020 and signed with the Giants, made the Pro Bowl, and thought he was set up for years to come in New York.
But the NFL works in mysterious ways. Bradberry did not have his best season in 2021, by his own admission, and then was a victim of the salary cap in 2022. A free agent, on the streets and not sure what his next step would be, Bradberry wanted to find the right fit.
The Eagles came calling, and it was perfect. Bradberry signed a one-year deal in 2022 and then went out and had one of his best seasons, earning All-Pro recognition for a team that won 14 games in the regular season, swept through the NFC playoff picture, and then fell narrowly to Kansas City in Super Bowl LVII.
"I came here and it was immediate. I loved it. Great building, great people, an organization that cares for you and the fans, they're just different level," said Bradberry, who inked a three-year deal prior to the 2023 campaign to remain in Philadelphia. "I wanted to win, so the recognition isn't what got me excited last year. I played well and I was proud of that. Signing back here in the offseason made me very happy. I think I've found a place where I can end my career. I know a lot of guys don't want to talk about that, but we're all going to eventually going to stop playing and I'm not afraid of understanding that."
Bradberry says that joining the Eagles helped him "rebirth my career a little bit and I'm just trying to make sure I stay on that same track." That's exactly what has happened. Bradberry lived with the disappointment from the Super Bowl loss and has moved on, as have the Eagles. They're leading the NFC East and host Dallas today, and 2022 is a distant memory.
What they do from this point forward is what matters.
"You learn every day if you're doing things right," he said. "We know we were coming back with a team that had high hopes and that every team was going to give us its best shot. That helps us raise our game. This league is all about what you're doing next. It isn't about the past."
Once upon a time, Bradberry was a little league wide receiver who had more talent than anyone on the field. A chance move to cornerback changed his football life and all these seasons later, he is one of the best corners in the world. He has found a great situation in Philadelphia and he intends to continue to make the most of it.
"This is a great sports town, a very demanding one, and I think that helps bring out the best in players," he said. "But that's the way the league is. Every week, you're going against great players. That can be stressful early in your career. That's part of the gig. That's part of my expectation. I want people asking me about playing against this great receiver or that one. I like that challenge."