It has been more than a year and a half since Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin played in a regular-season game. He breaks the streak on Thursday in Denver, against the Broncos.
But even though it’s been a while, he’s not feeling any butterflies.
“I’m pumped,” Benjamin said. “I’m juiced, man. I’m ready to get back on the field.”
Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, Benjamin will start against the Broncos more than a year after tearing his ACL and missing the 2015 season.
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This preseason tested Benjamin, who caught six passes for 61 yards in three exhibitions. He got winded quickly during the first part of training camp, but his conditioning has gotten better over the past month.
“He’s worked himself back into football conditioning,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Remember he missed a whole year. There was a frustration for him at one point during training camp where he felt like he couldn’t get his legs going. It was really about getting back into football shape.”
A 35-snap target
Now the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin is back to being one of quarterback Cam Newton’s top targets.
Rivera set a target of 35 snaps for Benjamin in Week 1 back in camp. That remains the goal days before the Panthers meeting with Denver.
“I think that’s the best guess,” Rivera said. “If it is more, great. I’d be really excited about it. He’s done some really good things and you see him getting back into stride and that’s probably the best thing.
“You see him taking more reps, you see him doing extra work, you see him working with Cam on the side. You can tell he’s gaining more and more confidence in it. So as the game progresses, if we hit that number, great. If we exceed it then it’s even better for us.”
The past week, Benjamin has been working closely on beating press man coverage. It’s the kind of coverage Denver’s cornerbacks like to employ, but it’s also one that he can use to his advantage.
At his size, Benjamin can win at the line of scrimmage against a smaller, weaker opponent. Rivera said it’ll be interesting to see if Denver tries to press Benjamin at the line or give him some cushion.
A big difference?
Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who won the Super Bowl MVP in a game where Benjamin was on the sideline, said the addition of Benjamin will impact Carolina’s offense “a lot.”
“He’s like a safety blanket for Cam,” Miller said. “He’s a deep, really big receiver – really talented, very fast and can jump. Luckily we have one of the best secondaries in the National Football League. Let me rephrase that, we have the best secondary in the National Football League in Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart, Kayvon Webster and Bradley Roby.”
That secondary held Newton to 44-percent passing, 265 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 55.4
With Benjamin, Carolina’s offense should open things up not only for Newton but some of the other pass-catchers as well.
“He’s been a great shape, he’s taken a lot of reps, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I think he’s anxious to get back out there and obviously we’re anxious to have him back.”