Carolina Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere remains out indefinitely after breaking his leg in December.
But when he gets back Benwikere will have a permanent position.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he wants to give Benwikere a chance to start at the outside corner spot opposite Josh Norman after Benwikere recovers from his injury.
Of course, that presumes the Panthers reach a long-term contract with or apply the franchise tag to Norman, who is ranked among the top free agents at any position this offseason.
Rivera said Thursday he’s “pretty optimistic” the Panthers can strike a deal with Norman, adding he’s not concerned about Norman’s somewhat advanced age (28) for a player hitting free agency for the first time.
As for Benwikere, Rivera wants the third-year player to stick in one spot after bouncing between the outside and the nickel position his first two seasons.
“I think the plan really with him is to keep him as a one-position guy,” Rivera said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I thought he did some really nice things when he had the opportunity to play on the outside and we’re going to see how he is when he gets back.”
Benwikere played well on the outside when he started the final four games of his rookie season in 2014. He intercepted New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees early in a 41-10 victory that started a four-game winning streak that vaulted the Panthers into the playoffs.
But when the Panthers signed veteran Charles Tillman last offseason, Benwikere moved inside to nickel, where he matched up against opponent’s slot receivers. Benwikere shifted back to outside corner when Tillman was sidelined with a knee injury.
But then Benwikere’s season ended when he fractured a bone in his left leg pursuing Falcons wideout Julio Jones in Week 14.
Rivera said Benwikere is out of his walking boot, but isn’t certain when he will be back on the practice field.
“They’ve got him moving around a little bit,” Rivera said. “But I don’t know what that means in terms of his availability, yet.”
Benwikere’s return to the outside means a couple of things: Tillman, who is recovering from ACL surgery, likely will not be back. And the Panthers need to sign or draft a nickel cornerback.
Carolina brought Cortland Finnegan out of retirement to play nickel last season after Tillman was hurt. Finnegan fared OK considering he’d been playing pickup basketball in Nashville before the Panthers called.
But he just turned 32 and was considered a stop-gap when he joined the Panthers in late November.
Cornerback Robert McClain was another late-season addition for the Panthers after Benwikere went down. McClain started outside opposite Norman for the last three regular-season games and all three playoff games.
McClain, who signed a two-year deal with the Panthers, played mostly nickel for Atlanta from 2012-2014.
Rivera said Thursday the Panthers’ scouts like the cornerback class in the this year’s draft.
There are several experienced nickels eligible for free agency, including Pittsburgh’s Brandon Boykin, Green Bay’s Casey Hayward, Seattle’s Jeremy Lane and Tennessee’s Coty Sensabaugh.