From the outside, the Carolina Panthers’ controversial plan of moving forward without star cornerback Josh Norman looked like it got off to a less-than stellar start.
In their first game of the season, the defending NFC champion Panthers started rookie James Bradberry and Bené Benwikere on the corners. Bradberry was a second-round pick out of tiny Samford and Benwikere is a third-year player who started a total of 10 games in his first two seasons and was coming off an injury.
Yet, the Panthers rolled with Bradberry and Benwikere in a Super Bowl rematch at Denver, in which the Broncos won a 21-20 thriller in which ended after Carolina missed a long field goal in the final seconds. Bradberry and Benwikere each played 55 naps, which is 94.8 percent of Carolina’s defensive plays. The only other Carolina cornerback to play was nickel cornerback Robert McClain, who played 37 snaps (63.7 percent of the Panthers defensive snaps).
Late in preseason, the Panthers were planning to go with an all-rookie pair at cornerback in Bradberry and the undrafted Daryl Worley. However, Carolina went with Benwikere, who has some experience, instead of Worley who didn’t get any snaps. Yet, the Panthers could turn to a Bradberry-Worley starting pair at some point.
The Panthers secondary did have some moments of weakness against Denver and starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, who never threw an NFL pass before Thursday. He threw for 178 yards and hit Emmanuel Sanders for 5 passes for 49 yards and Demaryius Thomas had 4 catches for 48 yards. Denver’s plan of attack of was to run the ball in this game and it did well, but Siemian did throw the ball down the field when he needed.
There is no doubt the Carolina passing defense looked much less imposing than it did during its run to the Super Bowl last year. Carolina’s defense was considered one of the best in the NFL as it went 15-1 in the regular season.
One of the reasons, of course, why Carolina’s defense was special was the presence of Norman. He was considered one of the top shut-down cornerbacks in the NFL the last couple of seasons.
Naturally, Norman, a fifth-round pick in 2012, was given the franchise tag. However, in the surprise move in the league this offseason, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman suddenly rescinded the franchise tag, making Norman an unrestricted free agent shortly before the draft. The Washington Redskins won a harried bidding war for the star cornerback.
The departure of Norman in Carolina made many in the NFL scratch their heads at the move. Teams just didn’t give away Pro Bowl cornerbacks, especially for no compensation. Yet, Gettleman decided Norman’s asking price didn’t fit what the Panthers wanted and he moved on.
The Panthers believe the heart of their defense is their front seven and that’s where they put their money with defensive linemen Kony Ealy, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei and star linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis the focal point of the unit.
The Panthers felt like they turned Norman from a late-round pick to a standout in this defense, and the same can be done with the likes of Bradberry, Benwikere and Worley. Still, some around the league worry if the loss of Norman will hurt this team.
“The Panthers have a clear plan and put all their resources in their front seven and their zone-based scheme puts less pressure on their cornerbacks than maybe any team in the NFL,” longtime NFL scout Matt Williamson said. “But, with that said, you have to be worried about their cornerbacks. They’re totally unproven.”
Former Dallas executive and current NFL analyst Gil Brandt was at the game in Denver. He said he did notice the Panthers aren’t as strong as they in the secondary as they were with Norman. But Brandt gets Gettlemen’s reasoning and he thinks the Panthers defense should still be strong.
‘Nowadays, you have to make sacrifices somewhere,” Brandt said. “The Panthers really believe in that front seven and they have some of those guys still to play. They are doing it their way. I think they can get by with the young kids back there.”
Of course, it helps that the Panthers are extremely well coached on defense. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is expected to be one of the hot head-coaching candidates next offseason and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is a defensive specialist.
In an interview with the Panthers team website, McDermott said he was happy with the progress of his young cornerbacks after the first game of the post-Norman era.
“I was pleased with how they played. With the concern going out there in that environment and how they’d handle themselves, I thought for the most part they did a nice, solid job for us,” McDermott said. “I thought they did some good things. We took the ball away a couple times, two or three times there, which was important for us. Robert McClain played a solid game, and Bené Benwikere had the big interception. James Bradberry was solid in his first outing, which is important, as I already mentioned, with a rookie cornerback going out there. There were some positives, and some things we have to improve as we move forward.”
This is the approach the Panthers selected, so they have to figure out how to make it work with the young corners after the unexpected Norman departure.