Carolina Panthers

Bené Benwikere ready to lead revamped Panthers secondary

Carolina Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere (25), injured in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 13, spent team workouts during the offseason helping rookie cornerbacks adjust to the NFL.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere (25), injured in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 13, spent team workouts during the offseason helping rookie cornerbacks adjust to the NFL. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

On the third and final day of the Carolina Panthers’ team minicamp last week, almost all was as it should be. Almost.

Quarterback Cam Newton whizzed passes to his arsenal of receivers. Kony Ealy ducked and swiveled past offensive linemen. Greg Olsen hop-stepped to “Panda” while he stretched, and even quarterback Derek Anderson couldn’t help bopping to the chorus.

But while his teammates moved about the practice field on June 16, cornerback Bené Benwikere was alone.

Well, alone with a wooden sled.

Benwikere pushed the sled for a short distance, then turned and pushed it right back. It’s all part of coming back from a leg injury that cost him the end of last season, including Super Bowl 50.

“Being able to be off to the side and at least get work in has been a great point for me,” Benwikere said, “but of course, I’d like to be out there in the mix.”

Gone but not forgotten

Before fracturing his leg in Carolina’s Week 14 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Benwikere had combined with Josh Norman and Charles Tillman to form a formidable starting secondary. The trio finished the regular season with 170 tackles and six forced fumbles among them.

Then came the offseason.

Tillman, who tore his ACL in the team’s season finale, saw his contract expire. Norman, disgruntled with his contract, ended up signing with Washington. Benwikere was the only one left, and even his status was uncertain after the season-ending injury.

The Panthers needed replacements. The NFL draft was their answer.

Carolina spent three straight picks – in the second, third, and fifth rounds – on cornerbacks. In came James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez, respectively, to compete in the secondary.

Benwikere watched as his team drafted three new players at his position. His response?

Help them in any way he could.

A young guy teaching younger guys

While Benwikere was busy pushing the unpainted wooden sled, the three rookie cornerbacks were locked into team drills. Bradberry saw heavy reps with the starting defense for much of minicamp, and Sanchez worked primarily inside against slot receivers.

Even though he couldn’t join his new teammates in every on-field activity, Benwikere was doing whatever he could to ease their transition.

“I get to go through individuals with them, get to do walk-throughs with them,” Benwikere said, “so there’s a lot of things from my standpoint that I can teach them.

“When we’re watching film, there’s a lot of things I can show them that happened to me previously, especially Zack (Sanchez) playing nickel.”

Although it’s just Benwikere’s third year in the league, he enters the year as one of Carolina’s most experienced corners. Because he knows the defensive schemes, he said, he has been able to focus more on rehabbing his injury and less on learning the plays.

“I’ve increased my drillwork rather than doing the team periods or watching the team periods,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, just increase my workload and get that endurance back in my ankle.”

By the time the Panthers reconvene for training camp at the end of July, Benwikere said he hopes to be fully healthy.

And if he is? His sled-pushing days off to the side, and his injury, will both be things of the past.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5337, @brendanrmarks

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