After he finished running wind sprints following Tuesday’s practice, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had trouble catching his breath as he answered the first couple of questions from reporters.
Conditioning isn’t the only thing the former first-round pick is working on after missing all of the Panthers’ Super Bowl season following knee surgery.
More than anything, Benjamin said the biggest hurdle as he returns to action is regaining confidence in his surgically repaired left knee.
Benjamin tore his ACL during a training camp session against the Miami Dolphins last August when he made a hard cut during a 1-on-1 drill. But as trainers gradually increase his reps and workload during organized team activities, Benjamin says he’s not apprehensive about making cuts while running his routes.
“Not at all. I try not to baby it. I try to go hard,” Benjamin said. “Whatever the route is I try to believe in and trust in the process that we’ve been doing with it, the rehabbing. So I just went ahead and make that plant.”
I try not to baby it. I try to go hard. Whatever the route is I try to believe in and trust in the process that we’ve been doing with it, the rehabbing. So I just went ahead and make that plant.
Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on his recovery from an ACL tear
Benjamin did mostly individual work Tuesday, running routes “on air” – as Panthers coach Ron Rivera called it – rather than against actual defensive backs. That will come.
The training staff is not going to rush back the team’s No. 1 wide receiver nine months after surgery.
“You take it slow and then you build up,” Benjamin said. “So you’re basically coming out and you walk some routes. Then you start jogging. Then you’re full speed eventually. So it’s just trusting it and getting that confidence.”
Two months to camp
Benjamin has another two months to get his confidence – and sea legs – back under him.
The Panthers have six more OTA practices and a three-day minicamp before breaking for the summer. Benjamin’s goal remains being 100 percent when the team reconvenes in Spartanburg at the end of July.
“We’re taking it slowly,” Benjamin said. “I can’t wait for training camp.”
Neither can offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who lost one of his top playmakers when Benjamin was carted off the Wofford practice field. Shula more than made do – the Panthers finished as the league’s top-scoring offense (31.2 ppg) and were 11th in total offense.
But they dropped five spots (to 24th) in the league’s passing statistics from 2014, when Benjamin set Panthers rookie receiving records with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
The loss of Benjamin meant the Panthers had to plug some of their other receivers into roles they were either unaccustomed to or unequipped for, beginning with Ted Ginn’s ascension as the de-facto No. 1 wideout.
Back to normal
Besides providing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a huge target and giving Shula a potent, red-zone threat, a healthy Benjamin also means the rest of the receiving corps can slide back into their customary spots.
“In football you can never have enough good players, and enough good players that understand how they fit into the big picture,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I think that’s always the million-dollar problem is you can have a lot of good players, but not everybody is necessarily willing to accept where they fit into the team aspect of offense.”
Olsen called Benjamin “the rare guy” who has the skill set to flourish as one of the league’s top receivers, without acting like a diva.
“He’s a No. 1 talent, No. 1 production,” Olsen said. “But he understands how he fits in the big picture. Any time you can add more guys like that to a team, you can’t help but improve.”
Benjamin, 25, missed a practice last week for personal reasons. Some of his most intense work Tuesday came after practice when head trainer Ryan Vermillion put him and a couple of other players through a series of sprints.
“I’m not where I want to be, but I’m still getting there,” Benjamin said. “It’s just getting that football wind back.”
Rivera not concerned
Rivera did not sound concerned, saying Benjamin’s conditioning will improve as his reps increase.
“I’m excited for him because he’s done some really good things in the limited exposure we’ve had to him the last couple of practices,” Rivera said. “It’s one of those things I know we can build on. I know Mike and the rest of the offensive staff are excited about having him back in the mix.”
Benjamin said the training staff recommended he wear a brace on his left knee. But he wasn’t interested, saying: “I’m good without it.”
Benjamin indicated he doesn’t want anything restricting him – mentally or physically – when the time comes to cut it loose and test the knee in live drills.
“It’s great to get back out here. You can’t be in there doing the plays or competing. But it still feels good to be out,” he said.
“I’m going full speed on. You can’t really hold back because if it gives out, it gives out. Like I said, I’ll just trust in the rehab that we did and feel comfortable with it.”