Carolina Panthers

Panthers sign corner Robert McClain as questions remain in secondary

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Philly Brown (16) falls into the end zone with a touchdown pass reception during fourth quarter action as Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert McClain (27) tries to strip the ball away on Sunday, November 16, 2014 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. McClain was signed by the Panthers Tuesday.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Philly Brown (16) falls into the end zone with a touchdown pass reception during fourth quarter action as Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert McClain (27) tries to strip the ball away on Sunday, November 16, 2014 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. McClain was signed by the Panthers Tuesday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers put a starting cornerback on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, and hope to avoid having another corner go on IR later this week.

The Panthers signed free agent corner Robert McClain to take the roster spot of Bené Benwikere, who was placed on IR after fracturing a bone in his lower leg during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 38-0 victory over Atlanta.

Benwikere started the past four games in place of veteran Charles Tillman, whose status remains very much in doubt.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday would be a big day for Tillman, who has been sidelined since hyperextending his right knee at Tennessee on Nov. 15.

Given the spate of injuries in the secondary – reserve safety and backup nickel Colin Jones is day-to-day with a strained groin – the Panthers may no longer have the luxury of keeping Tillman on the active roster if he can’t play.

“The only real test will be when he’s on the field doing the things he needs to, and that’s what we’ve got to find out on Wednesday,” Rivera said Monday. “To expect anything from going out there with the trainers on Monday and Tuesday is not the same thing. We’ve got to put him into a competitive atmosphere and see how he handles it.”

If Tillman joins Benwikere on IR, the Panthers likely would promote practice squad corner Lou Young, according to a team source.

McClain, the Panthers’ seventh-round draft pick in 2010, joins a secondary that has undergone significant changes in recent weeks. The Panthers pulled Cortland Finnegan out of retirement on Nov. 30 after Jones struggled at nickel, the position Benwikere had vacated after Tillman’s injury.

The Panthers are fifth in the league in pass defense and have a couple of defensive backs having Pro Bowl-caliber seasons. Fourth-year corner Josh Norman is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year after emerging as the NFL’s top cover corner, and free safety Kurt Coleman is second in the league with seven interceptions.

But the Panthers will be entrusting the other corner spot to McClain, who at 5-9 and 195 pounds is smaller than what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott typically prefers in his corners.

McClain, 27, started a total of 15 games with the Falcons over the past three seasons, collecting three interceptions and 20 pass breakups over that span. He was with New England during training camp but was among the Patriots’ final roster cuts. McClain worked out for the Panthers last month before Finnegan was signed.

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