CHARLOTTE – With three drafted rookies and a proven player in Bene Benwikere in the mix, some wondered if final roster cuts would leave cornerback Robert McClain on the outside looking in.
But come kickoff of the regular season last week in Denver, McClain was very much on the inside – in more ways than one.
McClain didn't just make the 53-man roster; he started the opener on the inside at nickel cornerback.
"I enjoy whatever role I'm given," McClain said. "I want to win football games with this team. Whether I'm taking two snaps or 50 snaps, I want to do the best I can to help the team win."
The Panthers believe McClain can help their young secondary find success as its nickel – even though that's a look they rarely showed in the preseason. After most often featuring Benwikere or rookie Zack Sanchez at nickel while featuring rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley on the outside, the Panthers lined up in the regular season opener with Bradberry and Benwikere on the outside and with McClain on the inside.
"As things shook out, we tried to get what we considered to be the best fit on the field, and that was Bene on the outside and Robert inside," secondary coach Steve Wilks said. "We pride ourselves on the physicality of our defensive backs and their ability to make tackles, and he showed up. He was physical, and his eyes were in the right spot."
It's easy to forget that McClain, selected in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Panthers, actually has more experience at nickel – and lots of experience – than on the outside. That's because McClain played on the outside after rejoining the Panthers last December, providing depth after Benwikere suffered a season-ending leg injury. Come the playoffs, McClain started on the outside after Charles Tillman suffered a season-ending injury.
McClain played nickel as a rookie for Carolina in 2010, and he was primarily a nickel back for the Falcons from 2012-14. In college at Connecticut, he played mainly nickel his first three seasons as a part of a defensive backfield that included former Panthers and current Colts cornerback Darius Butler.
"Back in college, they preferred me in the box and kept him on the outside. Now we're both nickels," McClain said. "He's a good friend. He's a guy I still look up to."
McClain, in his second stint with the Panthers, has become someone his teammates look up to. Bradberry said McClain is the player that has helped him the most in his transition to the NFL, and Benwikere even has a nickname for McClain.
"I call him 'SavvyClain.' He's a savvy veteran," Benwikere said. "People don't really talk about him like that, but he is a veteran. He understands the game, understands run fits and how to knock the ball out of receivers' hands.
"He's very, very smart, and I think that's what a nickel has to be. Playing in there, you have to be a vocal leader and get people set up. He can definitely do that. That's what he showed."
Benwikere said McClain has replaced Tillman, who recently retired after 13 NFL seasons, as the Carolina cornerback best able to teach others at the positon.
In his new role – or rather his reprisal of an old role – McClain will gladly take a nickel for his thoughts.
"I feel very comfortable with this defense and with the staff and the players around me," McClain said. "It's a family. It's a brotherhood, so you want to do it for the guy next to you."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against San Francisco.