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NFL AM: Panthers in Panic Mode, Cut Benwikere, May Miss Newton on Monday

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Just four weeks into the 2016 NFL season, the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers sit in a perilous position, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to improve any time soon.

The Panthers have already tripled their 2015 loss total and find themselves in a three-way tie at the bottom of the NFC South division. But after last week’s loss to the division rival Atlanta Falcons, who look like a far superior team this season, things went from bad to worse this week in Carolina.

The Panthers kicked off the week by noting that quarterback Cam Newton, who has been battered and beaten by opposing defenses through the first four weeks of the season, was in concussion protocol after an especially brutal hit by Atlanta’ Deion Jones last Sunday. That puts Newton’s status for their crucial Week 5 Monday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in serious jeopardy.

Carolina has spent the rest of the week in panic mode, capped when the team flat out cut starting cornerback Bene Benwikere on Friday. Benwikere was a fifth round pick in the 2014 draft and played in 13 games last season, including four starts, helping contribute to one of the league’s top pass defenses alongside Josh Norman. Benwikere broke his leg in December and missed the team’s playoff run, but went into 2016 expecting to be a key piece in that secondary once again.

However, when a bizarre turn of events led to Norman’s franchise tag being rescinded and the star cornerback leaving the Panthers to join the Redskins, Benwikere suddenly became the most experienced corner on the roster and was elevated to a feature role. Through three weeks, that hadn’t gone so poorly.

Though the Panthers were 1-2 entering last week’s game against the Falcons, their pass defense wasn’t much to blame. In losses to Denver and Minnesota sandwiched around a win over San Francisco, Carolina had allowed, on average, 183 yards per game. And the high watermark of those three came from the 49ers, mostly due to the fact that the Panthers built a big lead and simply played a little looser at the end of the game. Benwikere spent those first four weeks alongside 2016 second round pick James Bradberry in the defensive backfield and the two did well enough to contain the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Stefon Diggs. But it all came crashing down in Atlanta.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan picked apart the Panthers secondary, repeatedly targeting star wide receiver Julio Jones, who was first shadowed by Bradberry, then Benwikere when Bradberry left the game with a toe injury. The result was a 500-yard day for Ryan, a 300-yard day for Jones, and the loss of a job for Benwikere, who was the defender for eight of Jones’ 12 receptions and 228 of his 300 yards.

“I’ve never had anything close to that feeling, to that effect, to that type of game,” the cornerback told the Charlotte Observer on Thursday after revealing he’d been demoted. “But that’s what happens when you go up against a top-caliber offense…and a receiver and quarterback tandem that’s that good.”

“You prepare, you watch film, you do things. But when you don’t take it to that elite level, that level of conditioning, that level of play that they’re at, then you get burned,” he added, seemingly admitting that he wasn’t in proper game shape to take on a player of Jones’ caliber. One day after the statement, Benwikere was given his walking papers.

It’s a puzzling move by the Panthers to give up on Benwikere entirely now, after putting so much faith in him coming out of the offseason when the decision was made to let Norman go. And it only supports the case that Carolina hasn’t known what it’s doing at cornerback since the whole Norman contract issue began to unfold this offseason. When free agency opened in March, they were set on Norman returning under the franchise tag for at least one year. But on April 20, they blindsided everyone by rescinding the tag and essentially cutting all ties to the All-Pro corner. The timing left them without free agent options to replace him and their depth chart basically barren at the position.

They turned to the draft and after taking defensive tackle Vernon Butler with their first round pick, spent their next three on cornerbacks: Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez. That’s worked out to varying degrees of success thus far. Bradberry has been the best of the bunch thus far, but compounding the strange timing of the decision to release Benwikere is the fact that Bradberry is out this week with the toe injury suffered in Atlanta. So the Panthers will go into Monday night’s game against the Buccaneers with an entirely new set of starting corners.

One of those starters might be Sanchez, a fifth round pick who was elevated to the main roster from the practice squad upon Benwikere’s release. Sanchez was expected to play a big role after being drafted, but was then cut by the team a little over a month ago in the final wave of preseason cuts. He made it back around to the Carolina practice squad and a month later is now one of the team’s top corners.

The Panthers do have one veteran in their remaining cornerback stable, nickel back Robert McClain, but the other starter is likely to be Worely, a 2016 third rounder, meaning the Panthers may be back to starting a pair of rookies at corner. What could go wrong?

The good news is, it can’t get much worse for the Panthers against Tampa than it went in Atlanta, at least not on defense. Offense is, of course another story.

It’s looking more and more likely as we inch closer to Monday night that Carolina will be without Newton for at least this game. The quarterback did not participate in practice at all this week and wasn’t seen much around the Panthers facilities as he continues to try and recover from his brain injury and clear the league’s concussion protocol. That elevates Derek Anderson to starter, which should be an adventure.

Making matters more difficult is the fact that running back Jonathan Stewart is still not ready to return from a hamstring injury, meaning it will be more of Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whitaker out of the Panthers backfield. The less than dynamic duo combined for a whopping 18 rushing yards last week against a perviously suspect Atlanta run defense, though Whitaker did catch nine passes for 86 yards. Tampa Bay has a strong run defense and it will be tough sledding for the run game once again this week.

That’s a bad spot for a team starting a quarterback like Anderson to be in. It’s likely to press him into passing the ball on long third downs, which often ends in disaster for quarterback who has thrown nearly as many interceptions (57) as he has touchdowns (60) in his career.

And yet, with both sides of their roster seemingly in disarray, the Panthers must find a way to beat the Buccaneers on Monday night or risk falling to dead last in the division. They’re already three games back of the first place Falcons just four games in, but have a golden opportunity to gain ground with Atlanta set to visit undefeated Denver on Sunday. If they let that opportunity slip by, however, it’s hard to see the division coming back to Carolina.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys