Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin couldn’t believe it when I told him he only played nine snaps in Saturday’s exhibition against Tennessee.
“It felt like less than that,” Benjamin said.
He only played in half of the first-team offense’s snaps and he wants more.
The Panthers have been cautious with Benjamin, easing him back into the fold one year after his ACL tear. Panthers coach Ron Rivera raised eyebrows in the media two weeks ago when he said Benjamin should get about 30-35 snaps in the Week 1 game at Denver.
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That’s about half of what Benjamin averaged his rookie season, and it seemed Benjamin’s conditioning was the reason for the low snap count Saturday.
“The biggest thing for Kelvin is continuing to get into game shape,” Rivera said after the exhibition. “We’ll have an opportunity all week to get him some good reps.”
Conditioning issues have dogged Benjamin since college. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher couldn’t justify putting him on the field his true freshman season because he was overweight. And last season , entering spring workouts, Benjamin reported about 8 pounds overweight before getting into the best shape of his life for training camp.
The Spartanburg heat wore on Benjamin early in this year’s camp, and it was clear he was getting winded early.
“Of course! I haven’t been doing that for a full year, let alone competing against somebody,” Benjamin said. “It’s coming back slowly but surely.”
The 35-snap mark might seem far away since he’s only gotten 17 snaps in two exhibitions, but Benjamin doesn’t see any issue getting there.
“Oh easily. It’s football,” Benjamin said. “My reps are up in practice and I feel great.”
Devin Funchess has Benjamin’s back. The second-year receiver says far too much is being made of Benjamin’s conditioning.
The media are doing too much, he said respectfully. And everyone needs to get some perspective.
“Everybody keeps trying to bash him,” Funchess said. “He had to get back comfortable with running. He hasn’t played with us in a year. He’s not out of shape. He’s as expected.
“He’s coming off a knee injury and it’s as expected. He’s doing great to me, in my eyes. He’s getting more and more reps and more and more comfortable, and I can’t wait for everything to take off full tilt.”
Quarterback Cam Newton has thrown three passes to Benjamin this preseason for 34 yards. The catches have come on a slant route of some variation, which allows Benjamin to use his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame to shield a smaller cornerback and open a large, safe target for Newton.
Use your size, strength and speed is something Newton told Benjamin and Funchess when they came to the Panthers. The quarterback called it the three S’s, and it’s the rare trait the trio possesses.
Newton doesn’t consider see Benjamin out of shape. Rather, it’s about regaining the confidence that permeates throughout Carolina’s offense .
“Well, he had a chip on his shoulder. I can tell you that,” Newton said of Benjamin. “Just him gaining confidence and it’s him knowing he’s chasing the rabbit of confidence, so to speak. He’s not worried about anybody else. It’s about him gaining confidence in himself.”
Now the Panthers support him like he /supported themduring last season’s Super Bowl run. Benjamin was a cheerleader for the team after overcoming the emotional pain of missing the season with the knee injury.
This preseason, the receivers are dealing with a plan for Benjamin that will require more reps for themselves as Benjamin prepares for the season opener.
“They had a game plan for him and he knew what the game plan was,” Ted Ginn Jr. said. “With us being in the room and knowing that he’s going to have times where he might have to take a day off or a play off, we all know that we have to pick that up.”