Our Secret Superstar series continues with the Carolina Panthers. It's tough to get noticed when you share a defense with the likes of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, yet our Secret Superstar, corner Bené Benwikere, did just that with an impressive rookie season in 2014.
A consensus three-star corner out of Gardena, California, Benwikere ended up at San Jose State after failing to attract strong interest from any of the bigger schools in region. It worked out well for him as he was heavily involved from the get go, playing 47 games (30 starts) in four seasons, and fitting in across the secondary. Benwikere had 12 picks in his final two seasons with the Spartans, and earned first-team All-WAC honors in 2012, the conference's final season.
From the Fifth Round to the First Team
Much as he did coming out of high school, Benwikere went somewhat under the radar in the build up to the draft. Pre-draft hype is always more difficult to come by for those who play at a smaller schools and less heralded conferences, and a 4.63 40 time at the combine didn't help matters. His versatility and ball skills, however, were enough to see him ranked as a fourth to fifth round prospect, and that's just where the Panthers took him (with the eighth pick of the fifth).
Fifth round selections are generally expected to make their initial impact as special teamers and provide depth, rather than see the field right away. Yet the departure of long-time starting Panthers nickel back Captain Munnerlyn, gave Benwikere the chance to fight for immediate playing time. The spot was expected to go to Charles Godfrey, who had played safety since entering the NFL in 2008, but was transitioning back to corner, his college position, while also overcoming an Achilles injury. However, Benwikere hit the ground running, impressed in OTAs, earned and held onto the nickel role right through to the season opener.
Standout Rookie Season
The season started with some typical rookie problems, with two good games and three less impressive outings combined for a -1.4 coverage grade after five weeks, before a high-ankle sprain forced him out for two months. Benwikere returned superbly in Week 13, reeling off six straight positively graded games in coverage, one of which came in the playoffs. Benwikere's +8.6 coverage grade over the final five weeks of the season ranked second among corners, and was only slightly marred by a difficult day in the Divisional Round against Seattle, where he allowed the first touchdown into his coverage of his short career.
Benwikere finished the season ranked 15th out of 108 corners with a +7.2 coverage grade, the second-best mark among rookies, and the 10th-best mark recorded by a rookie in the eight seasons PFF has kept records. He was one of only eight corners to play 300+ coverage snaps without conceding a touchdown during the regular season. He also allowed just 8.6 yards per reception, the third-best mark among corners, behind Chris Harris and Jimmy Smith. All in all, it was a strong debut season that deservedly earned Benwikere a place on the 2014 PFF All-Rookie Team.
Better on the Outside
Given the grading it is obvious that the majority of Benwikere's best plays came after his return from injury. He got his hands on the ball five times in his first three games back, four pass defenses and an excellent interception against Drew Brees. On that play Benwikere trailed Joe Morgan on a post route downfield, and got his head turned to locate the ball as soon as the receiver did. From there he watched the ball all the way, timing his break to pick off Brees cleanly, and take the ball 21 yards the other way. He probably should have doubled his tally at 2:08 in the second quarter, when he made a perfect break to beat Pierre Thomas to the ball, but couldn't complete the catch, a fine play nonetheless.
That same skill-set was on display the following week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the very start of the second quarter, Benwikere could see Josh McCown zeroing in on Vincent Jackson, broke on the ball and knocked it away to force a punt.
Unfortunately for Benwikere, his worst play came in the most important game, against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs. He was covering Jermaine Kearse in the slot, but fell for a brief fake to the right from Kearse. It left Benwikere floundering in Kearse's wake as he raced 63 yards for a touchdown.
While Benwikere earned his chance with the Panthers covering the slot, he played his best football on the outside and that may be where his future lies. He didn't see a single snap as an outside corner prior to his Week 5 injury, and while he showed promise, he wasn't impressing as he would later in the year.
From his return in Week 13, Benwikere played as an outside corner on 78% of his snaps. All his biggest plays came while on the outside, and his worst came when lined up over the slot. It also helps to hide his biggest weakness, his tackling in space. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him open 2015 with that outside role, giving the team the option to slide him in to cover the slot on obvious passing downs. If he picks up where he left off, the Panthers have found themselves a gem in the fifth.