Bené Benwikere’s NFL career can be divided into two distinct periods: Pre-Julio and Post-Julio.
Pre-Julio was the fun stage -- the two-plus years when he was drafted by the Panthers, ascended to a starting cornerback role and made it to the Super Bowl.
Post-Julio was the struggle – the time after the Oct. 2, 2016 game when Falcons’ star receiver Julio Jones toasted him so badly that Benwikere was cut by Carolina and became a vagabond. In the span of 11 months, he went to Miami, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Dallas before landing in Arizona this March.
As the Cardinals prepare to play the Seahawks on Sunday, Benwikere is ready to add a third act.
“Everyone is going to go through highs and lows,” Benwikere said. “A lot of stuff through my first three years were really high. There weren’t too many lows. That one day was really a defining moment, in terms of being a low. I could either take that and say, ‘Dang, I’m not an elite athlete, I can’t guard a top-5 receiver,’ or I could take it as a learning lesson and figure out how to guard a top-5 receiver.”
Tuesday is the two-year anniversary of Jones’ 12-catch, 300-yard performance, and while it stalled Benwikere’s career, it didn’t end it.
At that time, the Panthers’ defensive backs coach was Steve Wilks. When the Cardinals tabbed him as their new head coach in January, Wilks pursued Benwikere on the free agent market. Despite the rocky ending in Carolina, Benwikere had no misgivings about linking back up with a Carolina-centric coaching staff.
Benwikere said he spoke with Wilks before his release in Carolina and left on good terms.
“Things were what they were,” Benwikere said. “At the time, they had three (defensive back) draft picks, I was coming off of an injury, and business is business.”
Benwikere began the season as a backup with the Cardinals but his role has steadily increased. In Sunday’s 16-14 loss to the Bears, he played in dime packages – registering a half-sack on a blitz -- and took over as the No. 2 cornerback late in the contest.
On Monday, Wilks said Benwikere and incumbent Jamar Taylor would compete in practice to be the Week 4 starter opposite Patrick Peterson. Safety Tre Boston – who was in the same Panthers’ draft class as Benwikere -- is ecstatic to see his close friend get another opportunity.
“You might be the scapegoat for some teams, but if you keep fighting through it, you’ll get to where you need to be,” Boston said. “Right now, it’s paying off for him.”
Benwikere will be the first to acknowledge he was partly at fault for his Carolina exit. He showed flashes of greatness, but the coaching staff always lobbied for more.
“I was complacent with being good, and being better than a No. 2 receiver,” Benwikere said. “They wanted me to have that vision. Follow the mindset of Josh (Norman) at that time, where Josh was that way for a long time and something clicked for him where it was, ‘I’ve got to be top-5.’ That was the path, and they didn’t see that (from me) at the time.”
Defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, the former linebackers coach in Carolina, has seen growth in the 27-year-old Benwikere.
“When we got Bené he was a young player,” Holcomb said. “He had to learn to do things our way, become our kind of guy. Over the years, he’s matured, without question.”
Success came quickly for Benwikere at the NFL level, and Jones’ dominant day was a splash of cold water. Two years and five teams later, Benwikere is anxious to show he’s a starting-caliber NFL cornerback.
“It’s an important spot (in my career),” Benwikere said. “Everyone always talks about getting knocked down. It’s what you do after you get knocked down.”
Images of past matchups between the Seahawks and Cardinals