Benwikere began the 2016 season as a starting corner for the Panthers, but he was cut after four games as he struggled to be a full-time boundary corner. He spent much of his first two years in the slot, a role he did well in for Carolina from 2014-15, but a broken leg toward the end of the 2015 season coupled with Josh Norman leaving in 2016 was the beginning of his downfall with the Panthers.
That led to Benwikere playing mostly on the boundary as he recovered this past year, taking on Norman’s role. But Carolina wasn’t willing to give him any more chances after he got beat far too often during the first four games of the season, a stretch during which they went 1-3. That included a painful Week 4 loss to the eventual Super Bowl losing Atlanta Falcons, during which Julio Jones went off for 300 yards and one touchdown with Benwikere in coverage.
“This year was a tough year,” Benwikere told Bengals.com. “I got the new role, tried to understand it, correct it, and do the right thing and it didn’t work out. It’s a new opportunity where basically I’m trying to re-identify myself for this year.”
After the Panthers waived him, the Dolphins claimed him but didn’t keep him long before waiving him and signing him to the practice squad. Benwikere went on to join the Packers’ practice squad during the playoffs before becoming a free agent as the offseason began.
From there, Benwikere visited several teams before deciding Cincinnati was the best fit for him moving forward.
“(Guenther) asked me what I knew about the defense and the organization and I told him when I watch you guys play Pittsburgh, when I watch you guys play the Ravens, when I watch you guys multiple times I know everyone is running to the ball and playing fundamentally,” said Benwikere.
“They love turnovers and that’s something I want to be a part of. That’s my main focus. They have real enforcers that can make plays. I’ll come in and try both spots (corner and slot) and they said, ‘We’ll see what fits you best. Let’s try and make it work.’ That’s the goal. I don’t want to limit myself to just playing the slot or just playing the outside.”
Benwikere sees the Bengals as a franchise with whom he can earn a job after being ‘fired’ multiple times this past year. But, he’ll have to earn everything he gets in a defense loaded with talented corners.
“He’s like everyone else we bring in. He starts at the bottom of the ladder,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “We’re doing due diligence and trying to make our training camp competitive. He played a lot for the Carolina team that went to the Super Bowl, he’s got position versatility, and he’s a smart guy.”
Seeing the Bengals add another corner makes it seem as though the team could be preparing to lose either Adam Jones or Dre Kirkpatrick this offseason. Kirkpatrick is poised to sign a big free agent deal with an NFL team, though it remains to be seen if the Bengals will be the team that locks him up.
As for Jones, his offseason arrest and declining play have put him squarely on the chopping block before free agency begins. However, Benwikere sounds like he’s looking forward to playing with both corners next season.
“They’re good players. I’m a good player,” Benwikere said. “In the end we’ll compete in training camp trying to make everyone better and we’ll see what happens.”
For now, it’s easy to see Benwikere’s path to winning a spot on the 53-man roster, even if everyone is back and healthy next season.
After Kirkpatrick and Jones, the Bengals sure aren’t cutting Darqueze Dennard, William Jackson III or Joshua Shaw, but Shaw may be used more as a safety after the Bengals tried that last season, before injuries and deficiencies forced him back to corner.
Then there’s 2016 third-round pick Keivarae Russell, who the team seems to be high on, but he’s already been cut once by the Chiefs, and Benwikere has far more experience, a tiebreaker the Bengals have often used on cutdown day.
But if Shaw works mainly at safety, Benwikere and Russell would be the fifth and sixth corners for a team that’s occasionally kept seven. There’s also the possibility that Jones is suspended for part of the season, which would increase Benwikere’s likelihood sticking around. We’ve still got a ways to go before final cuts prior to the 2017 season, but you have to like Benwikere’s chances of making the cut and being on the Bengals’ 53-man roster in 2017.