When the Panthers drafted Kelvin Benjamin in May, the message was managing expectations.
The team knew the 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver would be viewed by fans as the next Steve Smith, who the team unceremoniously released in the offseason. Benjamin had one year of big-game experience as a redshirt sophomore out of Florida State, and it was unreasonable to compare Benjamin to a 13-year veteran receiver.
“I’m not looking at it like taking Steve Smith’s spot,” Benjamin said minutes after being drafted. “I’m a big fan of Steve Smith. He is a great receiver in my book. I’m just coming in there to do something like he did. Come in be the best player like he was, come in and be the best player that I can be. I’m a big fan of Steve Smith.”
Said general manager Dave Gettleman: “We don’t feel it’s going to be too big for him, and like any other rookie it’s going to be a process.”
Said coach Ron Rivera: “We think he has the opportunity to ascend. He has a high ceiling, so we’ll see how he fits in and how things continue to grow as far as our offense is concerned.”
Clearly the Panthers didn’t want to heap expectations onto Benjamin, but he has looked every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver through his first preseason.
Benjamin didn’t drop a pass during team drills in training camp until the next-to-last day at Wofford College, when his quarterback and close friend Cam Newton sat out. He admitted his focus waned as camp came to a close and Newton was inside rehabbing his ankle.
He has shined in the exhibitions, including a 31-yard touchdown against the Bills that he made falling to the ground and a nice first-down pickup against New England cornerback Darrelle Revis.
The Panthers have surrounded Benjamin with veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery to help him learn to be a professional off the field while he’s the Panthers’ biggest receiving star on the field.
“I think we have a great group of wide receivers here,” Benjamin said. “Our vets are teaching me a lot about being a young receiver. I’ve been playing football for a minute now so the game hasn’t changed.”