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Panthers’ Biggest Addition Continues to Work His Way Back

When many criticized Carolina's quiet offseason last year, most skimmed over the healthy return of quarterback Cam Newton. While not a perfect analogy, a similar forgetfulness is happening this spring.

The Panthers' biggest move the past few months was letting Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman walk. Their most notable free agent addition — cornerback Brandon Boykin — was released in mid-May. Judging by the transaction list, it's tough to argue the defending NFC champs improved their roster.

Then you remember they're adding a 6-foot-5 receiver who scored nine touchdowns and went over 1,000 receiving yards in his only season as a pro.

"We can't count eggs before they hatch," Kelvin Benjamin cautioned after Tuesday's OTA session. "But I think it will definitely be good having me back."

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 5.32.08 PMAs has been the plan since the winter, Benjamin isn't fully back yet. Less than 10 months after a torn ACL ended his sophomore season in Spartanburg, the Panthers are playing it safe.

So Benjamin has to watch team drills from the sideline, a wait that won't end until training camp. For now, he's limited to individual position drills. It's not exciting, but the running and cutting are important tests for his surgically repaired left knee.

"I try not to baby it. I try to go hard. Whatever the route is, I try to trust in the process that we have been doing, the rehabbing. So I just go ahead and make that plant," Benjamin said.

"I am going full speed on it. You can't really hold back. If it gives out, it gives out."

Not everyone would be as nonchalant coming off an injury that ruined what the Panthers believed could have turned into a Pro Bowl season. But that's Benjamin's personality. It's why he's now out there without a brace. Trainers recommended he wear one. Receiver Stephen Hill is, and he's just 17 days ahead of Benjamin in his return from a torn ACL. But fearing a brace would hold him back mentally, Benjamin doesn't want to undermine his confidence.

"That's just for right now," coach Ron Rivera said when asked about his top wideout going brace free. "He's really not working against anybody; he's working on air.

"It's going to be up to [head trainer Ryan Vermillion] and his staff as to what the protocol's going to be with him as he starts working against other people."

In the meantime, Benjamin has two months to improve his conditioning, which understandably, isn't yet where it needs to be. What matters more is he's still on pace for a full return at training camp, where he'll join an offense that led the NFL in scoring and finished second in red zone touchdown efficiency.

Opposing defensive coordinators had a big enough problem trying to solve the suddenly potent Panthers last year. Now they could face a pick-your-poison situation like this: Newton in the shotgun alongside running back Jonathan Stewart with Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen lined up inside twin towers Devin Funchess and Benjamin.

141214_Panthers vs Tampa Bay_0588"That's the beauty of getting Kelvin back," Rivera said. "Now all of a sudden you throw that other guy into the mix and everybody's going to go, 'How do we defend that?"

Good question. But in a league full of egos, that could turn into an issue.

"That's always kind of the million-dollar problem," Olsen said. "You have a lot of good players, but everybody is not necessarily willing to accept where they fit into the team aspect of offense.

"Kelvin is the rare guy that's a No. 1 talent but understands how he fits in the whole big picture. Any time you can add more guys like that to a team, you can't help but improve."

That's the Panthers' plan, at least. To them, getting Benjamin back is like adding an extra first-round pick. It's also a lot cheaper than winning the offseason.

"It's going to be exciting, it really is. I think we have some potential to be better," Rivera said.

"I think we'll be better across the board as a football team. But talking about it isn't going to help you. You have to go out and do it."

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3 thoughts on “Panthers’ Biggest Addition Continues to Work His Way Back”

  1. They just need someone with Ginn’s speed as a 3rd WR, to pull defenses deep, opening up the underneath routes. Corey Brown (4.51-40) is Ginn’s backup, but Demiere Byrd (4.28-40 on grass), and Stephen Hill (4.36-40) could push them.

  2. Kelvin Benjamin is number 1. Devin Funchess, Ted Gin, Corey Brown and Stephen Hill should round out the group. Keyarris Garrett, K Norwood, and Damiere Bryd are all long shots

  3. Getting Kelvin back is the most exciting part of this season to me. Can’t wait to see how he improves from his rookie year. Nothing like adding a true #1 WR to the #1 offense.
    I doubt Stephen Hill even makes the roster although I know Panther’s fans can’t seem to stop talking about him.

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