Carolina Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl already knew what kind of player he had in Kelvin Benjamin when they had dinner with team owner Jerry Richardson.
He knew the 6-foot-5 receiver was a huge target with big-play ability, but he noticed something else about the first-round draft pick.
Benjamin, 23, reminded Proehl of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
“He loves the game, loves being around the guys,” Proehl said. “That’s his haven. He wants to be out on the field. He loves jokes; he’s got a great personality and has fun doing it. That’s what Cam was (in his first year). The first time he stepped on the field there was that big smile.”
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Benjamin, 23, and Newton, 25, often refer to one another as big brother or little brother. They’ve been seemingly inseparable since the Panthers drafted Benjamin 28th overall out of Florida State, and their commonalities explain why.
Both are from the South – Newton grew up in Atlanta and Benjamin in the more rural football factory of Belle Glade, Fla.
They’re the same height, although Newton has a few pounds on Benjamin. Both won a national championship.
They laugh, they joke and they dance. Newton is the unquestioned leader of the offense and, ostensibly, a mentor for Benjamin, who’s still navigating his way as a professional football player after just two years of college football experience. Benjamin has had to learn how to practice consistently and keep a cool head during games.
It’s a new role for Newton, who through three years in the league had never been a mentor. Receiver Steve Smith would have been that guy for Benjamin, but the Panthers released him in the spring in part because they didn’t want his brash ways to rub off on younger players.
It’s time for Newton to lead, and Benjamin is his brightest pupil.
“Ever since he’s been here we’ve gotten close with each other, and the thing that I appreciate from him is, he listens,” said Newton, who’s questionable to play against Tampa Bay with cracked ribs. “He always looks for something. A person of his talents and magnitude, it’d be easy for him to get in a position where it becomes easy for him. He wants to be great. He knows he possesses a rare talent in this league, and it’s great to see.
“He comes out to practice and some days are different than others, but he’s still learning. He’s still learning to be a professional. I had to learn it, and I’m still learning myself. As long as he keeps that mentality, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Learning to practice
The biggest knock on Benjamin in his early football career wasn’t dropped passes or poor route-running skills, it was that he didn’t show up prepared.
One time in high school in 2010, Benjamin refused to wear his helmet on the first morning of two-a-day practices because he had just gotten his ears pierced, according to the book ‘Muck City.’
The next year he showed up to camp at Florida State so overweight – reportedly by more than 20 pounds – that the coaches had to redshirt him.
In high school, Benjamin would sometimes go through the motions because he was so much bigger and better than his opponents. He learned at Florida State he couldn’t do that, and he credits the Seminoles coaching staff for teaching him how to practice better.
“He didn’t know (that) he didn’t know. It’s not that he didn’t want to, he just didn’t know what it took,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said at ACC media day. “See, it’s our job as a coach to educate and your job as a player to learn. And it’s a process that you have to go through.
“And he said, ‘OK, I give in.’ When he did, we became a different organization.”
Benjamin caught 30 passes for 495 yards and four touchdowns in his redshirt freshman season.
Then, in 2013, Benjamin took off. He had 54 catches for 1,011 yards and an ACC-high 15 touchdowns. Benjamin and quarterback Jameis Winston headlined a Florida State offense that set an NCAA record for most points scored in a season (723).
Winston connected with Benjamin on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining to win the BCS National Championship Game.
“I tell K.B. every time I talk to him it’s a blessing he got the opportunity to play with Cam,” Winston said. “As I was coming up I always loved Cam’s game. I feel like we have some similar qualities – obviously he’s better. But K.B. going from me to Cam, that’s amazing.”
Benjamin and Winston were close at Florida State, and the two often text now as Winston leads the No. 1 Seminoles this year after winning the Heisman Trophy last year.
“Almost every day we were together,” Benjamin said.
Now, he has that type of relationship again.
“That was my goal when I first got here: find a person that I bonded with and get close with,” he said. “And it was Cam.”
Newton’s friendship with Benjamin started after the draft when Benjamin called him complaining.
Wide receivers in the NFL can’t wear single digits, Benjamin had just learned. He had worn No. 3 in high school and No. 1 in college.
“He said, ‘Yeah, the league be tripping,’ ” said Newton, who wears No. 1 with the Panthers, recalling the phone conversation while trying – and failing – to match Benjamin’s soft but rapid-speaking voice. “ ‘They don’t let receivers get single digit numbers.’
“I said, ‘Well you have two problems then. First off you have the league to worry about to try and get No. 1, and you got me to worry about to get No. 1. So you weren’t going to get that on two different accounts.”
The two hit it off almost immediately. Newton, because of offseason ankle surgery in March, couldn’t work on throwing passes to Benjamin, so they worked on being friends.
Newton and Benjamin spent part of a late-spring weekend on a boat on a Georgia lake. In the summer they were photographed pushing a broken-down car outside of a restaurant in Atlanta. Benjamin accompanied Newton to the Under Armour facilities in Baltimore, where the two trained together for a week this summer.
It’s been a stark contrast from Newton’s early years. He worked out in the weight room by himself occasionally in his first two years. Former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said last year Newton can sometimes be standoffish.
Steve Smith once told those close to him that if he wanted to get dinner with Newton, Smith had to arrange it because Newton wouldn’t.
Change in leadership
Newton is already dismissing a question about former No. 1 receiver Smith before he’s heard it all.
Do you believe Benjamin would struggle to adjust to the professional level if Smith remained still in the Panthers’ locker room?
“That’s not true. I’m not going to even entertain that. There’s a lot that’s been said about myself that’s not true, and people always talk,” Newton said. “I have the utmost respect and will always have the utmost respect for Steve Smith. Because at the end of the day, without Steve, a lot of my successes would have been altered.
“I owe a lot to Steve. Steve will always have a place in my heart and a place of respect when he’s on the field.”
Now with the Ravens, Smith is no longer in Carolina in part because management wanted to hand leadership duties of the offense and the locker room to Newton.
Smith, an undersized receiver at 5-foot-9, grew up under difficult circumstances in Southern California and was selected in the third round of the 2001 draft. Former Panthers coach George Seifert wouldn’t let Smith do much more than special teams, and Smith has constantly felt the need to prove himself – even in his 14th year in the NFL.
Newton was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011. As soon as the Panthers turned in the card for Newton, he became the focus of the team’s future.
They had lockers near one another for their three years together, and both were faces of the franchise. But it wasn’t the best-kept secret that the two butted heads occasionally.
Newton continued a tradition Smith started this summer and paid for a trip to Greensboro for his receivers to work on their chemistry before training camp started. Proehl’s training facilities, Proehlific Park, housed the three-day workouts, and in an interview this summer, Proehl said the relationship between Newton and his new receiver differs from Newton’s friendship with Smith.
“Steve is the ultimate alpha male, and that’s what makes him great. He’s out to prove everybody wrong,” Proehl said. “The toughest thing with Steve is he’s such a worker. ... Nobody practices harder than Steve Smith. No one plays harder than Steve Smith. He puts so much on the young players, on his teammates, because he expects that from them.
“When a guy comes in, he wants them to work as hard as he does. Steve struggled with that. He struggled with Cam sometimes not reaching the expectation he had on him, and that’s where the struggle began and that’s where it continued over the three years.”
Smith fielded questions comparing Newton to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco frequently after his move to Baltimore. He even got one from the Observer in June.
“There are no similarities because Cam is Cam and Flacco is Flacco. They’re at different points in their career, different ages,” Smith said. “Flacco is married and has a kid. Cam is not married and he doesn’t have any kids. It’s different. It’s a different team and I’m not going to compare.
“People want to ask me who’s better; I’m not getting into that. It’s not about that – who’s better? That’s what that (NFL Network) Top 100 is for. I’m not going to become a naysayer.”
The Panthers have tried to temper expectations for Benjamin from minutes after they made their pick. General manager Dave Gettleman said it’d be “a process” for Benjamin to eventually become the No. 1 receiver, and Benjamin said he didn’t want to be viewed as taking Smith’s spot.
Benjamin is undoubtedly the team’s top receiver going into Sunday, and there’s no close second. Despite what anyone says, Benjamin is in Charlotte to replace Smith.
Even though their relationships differ, Newton believes Benjamin can look to Smith as an example of what he needs to be on the field.
“The things that Steve taught me, I’m just trying to teach them to Kelvin,” Newton said. “No one was a bigger competitor on the field than Smitty was. He brought the passion to the game, and looking at this league you look at different tiers of receivers. And the thing that I see that’s rare is having an every-down receiver. Steve took pride in blocking, he took pride in making the big catch and knowing that he was going to catch the ball.
“I’m just trying to nag Benji and get him to realize don’t just be the guy that catches. Be the guy that the running backs or I want to run to because they know you’re going to block. And Steve did a great job of doing that.”
Building a connection
Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” blasts from the speakers at Carolina’s practice fields on Wednesday, and Newton decides dancing will be his stretching.
Standing between cornerbacks Josh Norman and Charles Godfrey, Newton recites lyrics and gyrates. The music changes to Rich Homie Quan’s “Type of Way,” and Newton moves to another stretching line to be beside Benjamin.
The rookie receiver starts to sway back and forth while stretching, and Newton yells out a lyric.
“I probably make more money in six months,” hollers Newton.
“…than what’s in your papa’s safe,” Benjamin chimes in, wagging his index finger in the air and bouncing off Newton.
As Panthers coach Ron Rivera looks on, he says he hopes Newton is not further hurting his ribs. But he also likes that the two are having fun.
“There is a little bit of that tomfoolery that permeates through the locker room through the guys, and you do like that,” Rivera said. “It’s the bond process that we do go through as a team.”
Newton and Smith’s relationship could only last so long. Smith is past his prime, and his ability to be a constant deep threat waned as Newton developed. Newton is closer to entering his prime, and he has a receiver 8 inches taller than Smith that can get passes unlike any receiver he’s had before.
“A lot of people say his balls come out high,” Benjamin said of Newton, “but he’s a tall quarterback. I’m a tall receiver. We’re just playing at a different level. (Defensive backs) can’t even get that high. I’m probably the perfect receiver to come here for him.”
Rivera sees how the relationship has quickly built. When Benjamin lines up and sees a cornerback in a certain position or a safety too tight, Rivera said Benjamin can look at Newton and they know immediately what to do.
“If you can get that, and they can have that kind of relationship,” Rivera said, “there’s no reason they can’t play together for a long period of time and be successful, especially here.”