CB Benwikere hoping to make most of opportunity with Cardinals
TEMPE, Ariz. – Bené Benwikere thought he was having a solid second NFL season in 2015 when he appeared in 13 games and started four for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers. Then he suffered a fractured leg in the Panthers’ 38–0 win on Dec. 13, necessitating a long rehab whose effects he said he was still feeling when the 2016 season began.
Four games into that season, and immediately following a game in which Benwikere allowed Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones to haul in 12 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown, the Panthers released him. The timing seemed to say it all, but there were also reports of clashes with the coaching staff. Neither coach Ron Rivera nor then-defensive coordinator Sean McDermott dispelled those reports.
“We’ve got young guys that are going to play and, quite honestly, Bené didn’t do the things that we needed him to do,” coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer. “We’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page. And if we’re not, we’ve got to get guys that are going to be on the same page and get them out there and get them playing.”
The release commenced a nomadic, two-year existence for Benwikere. The Miami Dolphins claimed him off waivers on Oct. 10, 2016, but released him on Nov. 8 and signed him to their practice squad. On Feb. 14, 2017, the Cincinnati Bengals signed him. On Sept. 2, 2017, the Dallas Cowboys traded a conditional 2019 sixth-round draft pick to Cincinnati for Benwikere, who became a spare part.
At first, Benwikere struggled to digest what had happened in Carolina.
“There were a lot of things initially that went through my head, not understanding, just feeling like I was in a situation where I really wasn’t proud of it or happy with it,” he said. “I just didn’t really know how to handle it; just a lot of unanswered questions.”
As last season progressed, Benwikere began to turn a corner in his head and on the field. Even though he didn’t get much opportunity to play for the Cowboys, he came to a better understanding of what happened with the Panthers, who had drafted him in the 2014 fifth round (No. 148) out of San Jose State.
“They saw the potential and my ability to make plays and they just wanted me to be consistent in making those plays and doing the little things,” he said Sunday. “As a young guy, you don’t quite understand that. Then after that, you kind of see it all crumble and you’re not in the position where you had it so well.”
Although he never mentioned then-Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Benwikere insists he left Carolina on good terms with Rivera and then-defensive backs coach Steve Wilks. Two months after Wilks became the Cardinals coach and brought Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb with him as his DC, the team signed Benwikere to a one-year contract.
“I worked him out coming out of college, we drafted him, so I understand the core DNA that’s inside of him,” Wilks said. “He ran into a rough spot there, things happened and he put that behind him.”
With the starting cornerback spot opposite Patrick Peterson still tenuous, Benwikere is pushing his way into the mix as a versatile player. In two preseason games, he has an interception, a forced fumble and a deflection that caused an interception.
“The biggest thing with Bené is tremendous ball skills,” Wilks said. “The guy has a great knack of really feeling route combinations. He’s been in this system before.”
Benwikere admitted he likes playing outside corner because of the one-on-one matchups, but he is also comfortable at the nickel position or at safety.
“If I’m at safety one point, corner, nickel the next you don’t really know where I’m going to be so it gives you a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball and have fun,” he said. “The good thing for me is I already know the defense. It gives me more time to focus on the opponent and I get to understand what they like to do and hopefully get to the ball.”
With four NFL teams already in his rearview mirror, Benwikere, 26, understands there won’t be too many more chances ahead of him.
“I think this is just that opportunity for me to kind of relieve that [feeling] and get my self-doubt questions answered,” he said. “I came in trying to learn and find my way in the NFL just as any young guy does. Now that I’ve been around, yeah, I do think you can say I’m more mature in understanding how everything works and what you need to do each and every day.
“I just have to make sure I carry it over onto the field and just keep using my knowledge and experience that I’ve learned over the past four seasons to help me propel myself.”
That’s what Wilks has seen.
“Second chances mean a lot,” Wilks said. “I realize Bené’s potential and he realized the opportunity that he has here. He’s making the most of it so far.”