When Ron Rivera saw injured wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the locker room Tuesday, the Carolina Panthers coach couldn’t help but wonder what if.
The Panthers (4-0) are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, despite losing their No. 1 wideout to a season-ending knee injury during the last week of training camp.
“I walked in this morning and there he was at his locker. I just kept thinking, ‘Golly,’ ” Rivera said. “It’s interesting how much he’s matured. I know there was a little thing in the spring about his weight (gain). And he came back to training camp ready to roll.”
Benjamin tore the ACL in his left knee during training camp in Spartanburg on a noncontact play against a Miami Dolphins defensive back. Benjamin said he’s been “attacking rehab full speed” since undergoing surgery Sept. 10.
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“In this league, you sign up for it. You know there’s a chance that you’re going to go out there and get hurt,” Benjamin said in his first public comments since his injury. “It’s just it was right before the season. It happens. You can’t let it hold you down. You can’t let that define you.”
Benjamin set Panthers rookie records in 2014 with 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. When he went down in August, critics questioned whether there was enough firepower in the receiving corps.
The Panthers rank 29th in the league in passing offense with 189.8 yards a game.
Rivera said the absence of the 6-foot-5 Benjamin has hurt the development of second-round pick Devin Funchess. Funchess, who is 6-4, has only three catches for 38 yards in four games.
“When you have a guy that you’re very similar in stature, you watch him do the things we’re trying to get Devin to do,” Rivera said. “(Funchess) doesn’t have an example.”
Benjamin didn’t give a timetable for when he might begin running. But he says his rehab has gone well and he’ll be off crutches for good Thursday.
“So that’s progress,” he said.
Benjamin said he hopes to start watching home games from the sideline, beginning with the Oct. 25 matchup against Philadelphia. But to this point he’s watched every game from home.
“I’m yelling at the TV every Sunday,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to keep doing until I get back on the field.”
Benjamin said he struggled with his emotions immediately after the injury. But he’s used the extra time to get in his playbook and has been rehabbing with Panthers receiver Stephen Hill, who also tore his ACL at camp.
“I’m in a happy place right now,” Benjamin said.