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Panthers’ loss of Kelvin Benjamin will be tough to overcome

Panthers' Frank Alexander (left) greets Kelvin Benjamin (center) and Ben Jacobs before Wednesday’s scrimmage against Miami. An hour into the scrimmage, Benjamin injured his knee and will miss the remainder of the season.
Panthers' Frank Alexander (left) greets Kelvin Benjamin (center) and Ben Jacobs before Wednesday’s scrimmage against Miami. An hour into the scrimmage, Benjamin injured his knee and will miss the remainder of the season. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

There were several potential stories coming out of the joint practice session Wednesday morning between the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins.

There were first-team offenses working against first-team defenses. There was Miami reserve quarterback Matt Moore. The last time he was in Spartanburg he started for the Panthers. There was the big-man scuffle between Carolina’s Michael Oher and Miami’s Olivier Vernon, who together weigh 590 pounds. There was the appearance by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, his first of training camp.

Richardson ended a brief conversation by asking, with a smile, how I got past security. He then drove his golf cart up the hill to check on Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Only one story came out of camp Wednesday, and it is Benjamin’s knee.

Benjamin cut right during a drill and went to the ground without being touched. With gloved hands he held his left knee and screamed.

Benjamin was taken by cart to training camp headquarters. About 20 yards into the ride he looked down and grimaced, looking about as miserable as a man can.

There was no reason to pretend. He tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and will be out for the season.

We often deify injured players. But embellishment is not required. Benjamin had the best camp of the offensive skill players.

He was good as a rookie last season, catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. But he was inconsistent. He’d make a difficult catch and drop an easy one.

Benjamin came to camp leaner and faster this summer, and his routes were more precise.

He dropped few passes, but some days he couldn’t be covered. In the exhibition against Buffalo last week he caught a 2-yard touchdown pass his way. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he leaped above the fray and snatched the ball as if it was his.

Benjamin was Carolina’s No. 1 receiver. Who replaces him? Famous free agents are out there, older guys whose games were predicated on quickness and speed. Would Wes Welker or Reggie Wayne enhance the Panthers? They might if they had a phone number for Randy Moss or Jerry Rice. Collect the whole set.

Benjamin’s absence means Corey Brown, the fast wideout who had been the No. 2 receiver, becomes No. 1. Ted Ginn Jr., who moves so smoothly it’s as if he’s not running fast, usually is the fastest player on whatever field he steps. He believes in wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, and Proehl believes in him. Rookie Devin Funchess, who at 6-4 is a kind of a Benjamin Light, becomes necessary. By the end of the season he might be No. 1.

As Carolina coach Ron Rivera walked off the field after practice Tuesday, the day before Benjamin was hurt, I asked about his wide receivers.

He said: "I like the tight ends, too. That’s something that’s getting lost in this conversation. Everybody talks about what were doing with the receivers. What are we doing with the tight ends?"

With Benjamin out, they’ll be doing more with tight ends than they planned.

Cam Newton likes tall receivers, and his primary target is likely to be 6-5 tight end Greg Olsen, who runs a tight route and almost never drops a pass. He led the Panthers last season in receptions, tied Benjamin for the lead in receiving yards and finished second to Benjamin in touchdowns.

Last season was tight end Ed Dickson’s first with the Panthers, and because of fullback Mike Tolbert’s injury he spent most of it blocking. But in the final two regular-season games he caught two passes for 44 yards against Cleveland and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass against Atlanta. In the playoffs he caught one pass against Arizona for 34 yards and two for 33 yards against Seattle.

After lunch Wednesday several Panthers loudly played cards at tables in the Campus Life Building. ESPN was on television, and Ron Rivera suddenly appeared on the screen and began to talk about Benjamin. The volume in the room immediately dropped and most of the games stopped.

Because Benjamin is only 24, some fans contended the Panthers lacked a No. 1 receiver.

Finally they’re right.    

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