Coming off the second Super Bowl appearance in team history, the Panthers took a leap of faith last spring when they chose to let cornerback Josh Norman go rather than meet his contract demands.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera seems ready to double down on that gamble by starting two rookie corners.
The Panthers still face a month of exhibitions and much can happen between now and the Super Bowl rematch at Denver. But the early signs point to James Bradberry and Daryl Worley being introduced as the starting cornerbacks Sept. 8 against the Broncos.
“It is a big vote of confidence and we’ll see,” Rivera said. “To me what’s going to be real important is how we play in the preseason games.”
When general manager Dave Gettleman drafted Bradberry (second round), Worley (third) and nickel back Zack Sanchez (fifth) with successive picks a week after Norman’s exit, it was clear the rookies would be factors in Sean McDermott’s defense.
But any thought that the so-called “Three Amigos” could enjoy a gradual, breaking-in period were scrapped when the Panthers cut Brandon Boykin six weeks after signing him and Bene’ Benwikere remained sidelined with a leg injury.
Benwikere returned this week with a plate and screws in his left fibula (they’ll stay there). But when the first-team defense took the field Thursday at Wofford, Bradberry and Worley were the starters. Benwikere came in later at nickel, the role some believe he’s best suited for.
Benwikere has been on a yo-yo since the Panthers drafted him in the fifth round in 2014 – bouncing between outside corner and the nickel spot as needed. When Rivera announced during the offseason the team wanted to put Benwikere back outside, it seemed the former San Jose State player finally had found a spot to call home.
Hold that thought.
To his credit, Benwikere has remained diplomatic, despite returning to a slot position that pays less than the more lucrative island real estate on the outside.
“Of course I prefer to be every down. Since I’ve been here I’ve kind of flip-flopped back and forth,” Benwikere said Thursday. “The team has their own plans and however they may fit, that’s how we’re going to go.”
The plan for now is to go with Bradberry and Worley, who have impressed coaches and teammates with their confidence and poise. They have what wide receiver Devin Funchess called “swag,” but don’t feel the need to broadcast it.
“They don’t talk very much. But they go out there and compete. That’s what I like,” said defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, an expert on the subject of not talking very much.
Benwikere agreed that the three rookies have made their presence known in Spartanburg without being heard.
“That’s one good thing is they’re not too loud,” Benwikere said. “That’s good, they’re all humble and they take coaching very well. I know our coaches and the staff love that.”
Whether Benwikere intended or not, his reference to being coachable brought back memories of Norman, whose path to stardom and a $75 million contract with Washington included a couple of stops in Rivera’s doghouse.
Norman flashed signs of future greatness (and cockiness) during his first camp in Spartanburg. He intercepted Cam Newton three times in one practice, then famously corrected reporters by pointing out he’d actually had four picks.
Compare that to Worley’s response Monday when asked about picking off Newton: “Not really much to brag about. It’s practice at the end of the day.”
It helps that the rookies have each other to bounce ideas off and split the costs when the veterans send them on a food run. More strength in numbers: Worley said it’s nice when one of the rookies asks a question the other two were thinking.
There will be growing pains for the rookies. And it could be sharp, intense pain if the Panthers don’t get a consistent pass rush from their front four.
After all three rookies made plays against Newton on Monday, the MVP went after the rookies Wednesday for a pair of long touchdowns. But there were no visible lingering effects Thursday.
“Being able to know that there’s guys in the same position as you, it definitely gives you a level of comfortability, knowing, ‘Oh, he made the same mistake as me,’ ” Worley said earlier this week. “You can learn just watching someone else make the mistake.”
That learning process will begin in the preseason and carry into the fall when the games count. But Rivera, aka Riverboat Ron, does not see starting the rookies as a gamble.
Rivera pointed to the 1981 San Francisco 49ers, who started three rookie defensive backs – Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson.
“And they won the Super Bowl,” Rivera said. “So you just never know.”
Worley was asked whether he could envision being on the field this season with Bradberry at the other corner and Sanchez in the slot.
He didn’t blink.
“That’s the confidence that we go in with the hopes high,” he said. “Hopefully, that is the situation that we will be in and we’re all out there making plays and being able to turn this defense into a No. 1.”