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As one Panthers cornerback recovers, a rookie shines

Coming off an Achilles injury suffered in 2013, Panthers nickel corner Charles Godfrey participated in individual drills Wednesday during Panthers’ organized team activities but watched from the sideline during team drills.

What he, the Panthers and the Carolina coaching staff saw was fifth-round pick Bene’ Benwikere, Godfrey’s main competition, shine in some of his first action with Panthers veterans.

In 11-on-11 drills, Benwikere played the starting nickel position when the Panthers went to their subpackage. He had one interception and a near pick on a pass breakup, and those plays led to his name being the first out of coach Ron Rivera’s mouth when asked who surprised him the most on Wednesday.

“He’s done some things, and I don’t want to put any pressure on him, but I compare him to Nate Vasher who (defensive backs coach) Steve Wilks and I had up in Chicago,” Rivera said. “He seems to be a very headsy football player, has got good ball skills and great anticipation and that’s what you look for in a corner.”

Vasher, a former All-Pro with the Bears, hauled in 20 interceptions and broke up 49 passes in his seven-year career from 2004-2010. Benwikere is two inches and 10 pounds heavier than Vasher, but they have a shared penchant for finding the ball.

On Wednesday, Benwikere intercepted a Matt Blanchard pass intended for Tavarres King. Soon after, he nearly picked off Derek Anderson, who Greg Hardy pressured heavily, on a pass for De’Andre Presley.

But less than a week into this phase of OTAs, it’d be very premature to name Benwikere the favorite to win the starting position. Godfrey is eight months removed from his season-ending Achilles tear, and he hasn’t played cornerback since his college days before the Panthers drafted him in 2008.

“If it pans out, it could be a very good thing for him. It could be a windfall,” Rivera said. “Believe me, we’re pulling for him. We really are. He’s a good football player, a physical football player who’s got some talent and ability.”

Rivera said he liked what he saw from Godfrey in individual drills, and Godfrey promised he’d be 100 percent by training camp in late July.

In his first comments since his base salary was slashed by $4.25 million this offseason, Godfrey said he’s getting in the work he needs to compete for the starting job.

“I’m not going to sit here and say it’s not about the money because I also have people I have to take care of at home,” Godfrey said. “I understand their point as far as me coming from an injury. I think that’s part of the deal. But at the same time, I’m still here. I’m still a team player. I still want to put our defense in the best position to win and be the best out there.”

Bonding time: Even though he’s not practicing with Cam Newton, rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin is spending time with the Panthers’ quarterback.

The two were together this past Memorial Day weekend in the greater Atlanta area bonding on the lake and over dinner. Newton is from that area and Benjamin is from Belle Glade, Fla., a small town known as “Muck City.”

“It’s about building rapport. The nice thing was there was a little bit of a connection with the two of them,” Rivera said. “It’s kind of funny because Kelvin had told him, ‘Man I’ve never been to a big city.’ They hung out a little bit. (Newton) showed him the big city and bright lights.”

More notes:

Guard Chris Scott, who started at right guard in early drills, left practice about 20 minutes early due to fatigue from the heat. Scott struggled with conditioning when the Panthers brought him in during training camp last year, and Rivera said he wanted to be careful with the 315-pound Scott during voluntary workouts … Second-year guard Edmund Kugbila was the only Panthers player present but not participating in any drills. Kugbila has had several lower-body injuries in the past year, and he had PCL and MCL surgery in September. He worked with trainers and on the exercise bike during the two-hour practice.

Observations

• Starting left guard Amini Silatolu still isn’t healthy enough to compete in 11-on-11 drills following ACL surgery last year but participated in all other workouts.

• Second-string quarterback Derek Anderson threw off his back foot a lot Wednesday, a sign he wasn’t getting the protection he needed.

• If Benwikere was the biggest surprise on the defensive side, undrafted receiver Philly Brown had to be on the offensive side. He caught nearly everything that was thrown his way.

• Third-year cornerback Josh Norman missed Wednesday’s practice for a dental appointment, but Rivera said he had been there during the week.

• Cornerback Antoine Cason, receiver De’Andre Presley and Brown fielded punts from Brad Nortman and Jordan Gay.

• Receivers Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant spent time after practice inside the stadium tunnel throwing tennis balls off the wall to one another to work on hand-eye coordination.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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