The 2015 season appeared promising for second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin after nearly three weeks of training camp.
But in one play Wednesday morning that promise was stripped away. Benjamin, the Carolina Panthers’ undisputed No. 1 receiver, will miss this entire season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Wednesday’s joint practice with the Miami Dolphins at Wofford College.
The ACL tear leaves the Panthers, the two-time defending NFC South champions, without a clear-cut leading receiver less than a month before the start of the regular season.
“Kelvin Benjamin is the No. 1 receiver, hands down. He’s the No. 1 go-to guy on offense,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said before the MRI results revealed the tear. “Losing a guy like that, I think, in any offensive set or scheme you put on the football field is going to be big.”
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The injury occurred about an hour into practice. Benjamin lined up to the right of quarterback Cam Newton for one-on-one drills and ran about 10 yards against Dolphins safety Reshad Jones before attempting to cut to the right.
Benjamin performed a swim move on Jones to get on the inside of Jones, and at that moment as he planted his feet to turn he crumbled to the ground. As Benjamin went down, he immediately grabbed his left knee with his left hand and quickly let out a scream.
Panthers and Dolphins both huddled around Benjamin. Some took knees, others said prayers. By the time the cart came onto the field, Benjamin was surrounded by Newton, receiver Ted Ginn Jr., head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion and Rivera.
“You know Cam was right there with his teammate and just saying ‘you’re going to be OK. We’ll hold the fort down until you’re ready to get back up,’” Rivera said after practice before the MRI. “It was positive and everybody’s trying to be positive.”
Benjamin put no weight on his left leg as he went to the cart. He kept his head down as he left the field on the back of the cart with a trainer.
“Obviously, we feel awful for Kelvin,” general manager Dave Gettleman said in a statement. “He’s worked tremendously hard to put himself in a positon to have a strong year. We’re confident he will attack his surgery and rehab with the same determination he has met all challenges before.”
Before the injury, Benjamin was finally morphing into more than just a No. 1 receiver on the field. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. recently called Benjamin a “perfectionist,” and veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery referred to the second-year player as the “lead dog.”
Benjamin, 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, showed up nearly 9 pounds overweight and struggled with hamstring injuries in the spring but worked to get down to weight once camp opened. Rivera had gushed about how great of shape Benjamin was in when the Panthers reported to Wofford College in late July.
There also came self-awareness for the 24-year-old receiver. Benjamin admitted less than two weeks ago that he spent a lot of last season coasting on his talents rather than working on the fine details.
“Definitely, going through a season, you get your body banged up so you tend to naturally take something off,’’ Benjamin said. “So this year I am focusing on that.’’
Cotchery saw that in Benjamin on Wednesday morning before practice.
“Up early and ready to go,” Cotchery said of Benjamin. “Just going through his stuff, play-wise to make sure he was on top of everything. He was coming off the ball pretty well in individual routes. Yeah, he was ready to go. Wasn’t saying much. He’s been like that the entire camp and that has been a great thing to watch. He’s been bringing it every day.”
Last year Benjamin had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. Only New York’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans had more receiving yards as rookies in 2014. No rookie receiver was targeted more than Benjamin.
There’s no clear replacement for Benjamin on Carolina’s roster. Rookie receiver Devin Funchess, who injured his hamstring Wednesday and won’t practice Thursday, hasn’t shown enough in his few months as a professional to take over the No. 1 spot. Tight end Greg Olsen becomes the de facto top target one year after a Pro Bowl season with 1,008 receiving yards.
Now Newton and the Panthers are faced with figuring out how to proceed this season with three exhibitions remaining before the season opener on Sept. 13 in Jacksonville.
“This is the NFL. We’re in a league where if a man goes down, a man has to step up,” Ginn said. “One thing you can do is keep working your craft and coaches decide who and where they want to go with positions. We just keep playing. That’s all you can do is keep playing.”