CHARLOTTE — When it came time for the Carolina Panthers to make their first-round selection in this year’s NFL draft, it was pretty much a given they’d either select a wide receiver or an offensive tackle, considering they had a serious need at each position.
To the surprise of some, that selection was Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, whom many had tabbed as a second-round pick. But the Panthers like his massive size and went with the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder. With the first-round designation, Benjamin is the heir apparent to the departed Steve Smith, projecting to fill the role of the team’s top receiver, though realistically it may take a season or two for that to come to fruition, as it does for most receivers.
"I think his development is good right now," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "We’re throwing a lot at him."
The one thing the Panthers have lacked the past four years in their receiving corps is a big receiver that can physically punish a cornerback and go up and get jump balls in the end zone. After catching 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns last season at Florida State, Carolina is counting on Benjamin to be that missing piece.
But the Panthers also know he’s got a long ways to go before he becomes polished enough to be that dominant force in the defensive secondary.
Route running was considered one of Benjamin’s biggest weaknesses in college. He also takes a while to reach top-end speed. At the NFL Combine, Benjamin posted the slowest 60-yard shuttle time at 12.10 seconds of any receiver there.
Benjamin knows he has a lot to improve on.
"(I’m working on my) route running, being physical and getting off the ball," he said. "Really just going to get everything, and really just trying to be 100 percent with catching everything."
Many prognosticators have labeled Carolina’s receivers as one of the worst collective group in the NFL. That’s something Benjamin doesn’t concern himself with or find offensive.
"We just want to go out and play football, which is something we’ve been doing all of our lives," he said. "It doesn’t matter what other people think or say. We’re just trying to get better as a corps and as a team."
Regardless of there being so many questions at receiver, offensive line and in the secondary, not to mention the health of quarterback Cam Newton’s ankle, which he had surgically repaired in March, Benjamin has already set goals.
"Win a Super Bowl," he said. "Add on to my national championship ring."
When a reporter followed up by asking if it was possible this season with the Panthers, Benjamin was quick to answer.
"It’s a football team, right?" he said. "It’s possible."
Because many of the team’s defensive backs have had issues grabbing onto receivers with their hands, Rivera and secondary coach Steve Wilks used an old trick, though none of the media members had ever seen it.
They made corners Josh Norman and Antoine Cason wear boxing mitts while trying to defend receivers. It prevents them from grabbing onto the receiver.
Boxing mitts are what boxing trainers wear on their hands while the boxer punches them. Rivera said it was a method used by the Bears when he played linebacker in the 1980s.
"We have to emphasize that we have to keep our hands off the receivers," Rivera said. "It’s going to be one of the points of emphasis the league has talked about this year, and we’re going to make sure we’re doing things the right way. They’re using their arms and hands the right way and they’re developing some good habits, and we’re trying to break some old and bad habits."