So that’s why the Carolina Panthers let Steve Smith go – or at least one of the reasons.
It was one catch in an August exhibition, but rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin showed why the Panthers envisioned him as their future No. 1 receiver when they drafted him in the first round in May.
If Benjamin keeps making catches like Friday’s, the future will be starting now.
Benjamin’s falling-down, 29-yard touchdown grab easily was the highlight of the Panthers’ 20-18 loss to Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium.
Benjamin’s final catch at Florida State won the BCS title game for the Seminoles against Auburn. His first NFL reception – exhibition edition – lacked the drama, but was no less impressive.
Benjamin ran a go route down the left sideline and stumbled when he made contact with Bills cornerback and Rock Hill native Stephon Gilmore. But Benjamin came down with Derek Anderson’s pass in the end zone to put the Panthers up 6-3 on the first play of the second quarter.
“I stepped on his heel and stumbled, and was able to keep my feet and just follow the ball all the way to the ground,” Benjamin said. “That’s how you catch the ball, with your eyes.”
Gilmore, the third-year player from South Carolina, called Benjamin a good player, but Gilmore blamed himself for allowing the touchdown.
“I beat myself,” Gilmore said. “He didn’t do nothing spectacular, but I just tripped up, so he made a good play on the ball.”
Panthers backup kicker Jordan Gay missed the 33-yard extra point, becoming the first kicker to miss the longer extra point the NFL is experimenting with during the first two weeks of exhibitions.
Benjamin, the 28th overall pick, was targeted only one other time in three series, when Anderson led him too far on an out route in the first quarter. But his catch Friday, along with his strong showing during the first two weeks of training camp, are good signs for an offense that replaced its top four receivers.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman believed he could find a replacement for Smith in a deep receiving draft, even picking late in the first round.
The 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin is the big target Cam Newton didn’t have during his first three seasons.
Newton watched Friday’s game from the sideline in workout gear. The Panthers have carefully mapped out Newton’s practice and rehab schedule after March surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.
Newton worked out with the team’s receivers before the game, and the team decided to hold him out of the game. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there’s a good chance Newton will play in the Aug. 17 exhibition against Kansas City.
The rains that were in the forecast never came, but the play was sloppy after the starters began leaving.
Anderson, beginning his fourth year as Newton’s backup, completed 5-of-7 passes for 65 yards and scrambled twice to convert third downs. But he saw room for improvement.
“We just need to be cleaner. Get out of the huddle and see things better,” Anderson said. “I was seeing the defense pretty good, but we can always get better seeing coverage.”
Matt Blanchard, the fourth-team quarterback who replaced Anderson, was 2-of-8 for 13 yards, was sacked twice and lost two turnovers to finish with a quarterback rating of 0.0.
Former Minnesota quarterback Joe Webb played the entire second half. He threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Williams with 1:37 left in the game, but bounced his 2-point conversion throw at the feet of undrafted rookie Philly Brown.