CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four games removed from a Super Bowl appearance, the Carolina Panthers’ secondary is a mess and in need of “retooling.”
The struggling Panthers (1-3) abruptly cut starting cornerback Bene Benwikere on Friday, five days after giving up 503 yards passing to Matt Ryan and 300 yards receiving to Julio Jones in a 48-33 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Benwikere, who started all four games this season for the Panthers, allowed 228 yards and a touchdown on eight catches to Jones on Sunday according to Pro Football Focus.
The decision means Carolina will have three different starters in the secondary when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night. The team’s other starting cornerback James Bradberry said he won’t play because of a turf toe injury, while the Panthers are benching safety Tre Boston in favor of recently acquired veteran Michael Griffin.
“We’re trying to put it together so we can move forward,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s a big part of retooling this football team. It’s tough.”
The Panthers rank 14th in the league in pass defense and have allowed eight touchdowns passing in four games.
Rivera said he wants to see what the team’s younger defensive backs can do.
The Panthers drafted three rookie cornerbacks this past April to help fill the void left by All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. The team had initially placed the franchise tag on Norman, then removed it and allowed him to become a free agent. Norman wound up signing a huge contract with the Washington Redskins.
The addition of Griffin to the starting lineup means strong safety Kurt Coleman will move back to free safety, the position he played last season for the NFC champions.
With Bradberry out at least a week, rookie Daryl Worley is expected to make his first career start alongside Robert McClain against Tampa Bay at cornerback. The team promoted rookie cornerback Zack Sanchez from the practice squad to take Benwikere’s spot on the roster and he will play the nickel spot.
Benwikere’s agent Bardia Ghahremani says he was shocked when his client was cut, particularly so late in the week.
“Just weird,” Ghahremani said. “I mean he was their best cornerback.”
Benwikere broke the fibula in his leg 10 months ago and Ghahremani said he is still working himself back into shape.
Teammates said they will miss Benwikere.
“Bene was a great part of what we have been about, about this culture and this team,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “But it’s a business.”
Sanchez found out before practice that he had been elevated to the 53-man roster. He was a part of the team’s final cuts, but was later re-signed to the practice squad.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to get back to who I am, which is a hard-working guy,” Sanchez said. “I think I got too caught in the hype of being one of three cornerbacks drafted and coming in and playing right away.”
Bradberry is expected to start once he returns to full health.
He said he is “week to week” with the toe injury.