SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has done his homework.
Asked on Thursday if he had any reservations about starting a pair of rookie cornerbacks, the 2015 NFL Coach of the Year smiled.
“There was a team a few years ago that started three DBs that were all rookies, and they won the Super Bowl," he said.
That was the 1981 San Francisco 49ers, which started rookies Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright at cornerback and rookie Carlton Williamson at strong safety.
San Francisco also started Dwight Hicks, three years removed from the Canadian Football League, at strong safety.
He also wasn’t predicting Carolina will win the Super Bowl.
But he was making the point that if the Panthers do opt to keep Bene' Benwikere at the nickel instead of as the every-down corner, there is a history of having success with rookie corners.
“So you never know," Rivera said.
The difference here is that San Francisco coach Bill Walsh overhauled his secondary after a 6-10 season. He drafted Lott in the first round (8th overall), Wright in the second and Williamson in the third. The three combined for 14 interceptions. Throw in Hicks, who had nine interceptions, and you can see why the 1981 49ers went 13-3 during the regular season and beat Cincinnati in the Super Bowl.
Carolina’s overhaul of the secondary is coming off a 17-2 season that ended with a loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50. It was more out of necessity with the loss of Pro Bowl corner Josh Norman to the Washington Redskins and a knee injury that basically ended the career of 35-year-old Charles Tillman.
Instead of going after replacements in free agency, the Panthers drafted Bradberry in the second round and Worley in the third. They also added Zack Sanchez in the third with the thought he could play outside or nickel.
If Benwikere doesn’t show he is fully recovered from a fractured ankle that ended his 2015 season to win either the every-down corner or nickel spot, the Panthers could start three rookies in passing situations.
That’s been the combination for the majority of the first week of camp.
Benwikere says he’d still like to be the every-down back, and noted that it's still early in camp.
Rivera says it’s going to be “real important how we play in the preseason games" as far as who will start in the Sept. 8 opener against Denver. But the fact that Rivera knew the 49ers started three rookies in 1981 could be a hint he’s leaning toward going with the rookies.