NFL 2016: Panthers hope Benjamin boosts high-scoring offense
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Cam Newton turned in an MVP performance last season while leading the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl - and he didn't even have his favorite wide receiver.
So there's plenty of curiosity over what the league's highest-scoring team can accomplish this year with Kelvin Benjamin returning from a torn ACL.
Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014 before surgery. He's back now, and will start alongside second-year wideout Devin Funchess, who replaces veteran Jerricho Cotchery following an impressive training camp.
Along with Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and deep threat Ted Ginn Jr., who accounted for 10 TD receptions in 2015, Newton has plenty of options in the passing game.
''Benji's coming back with a vengeance - and I mean it,'' Newton said earlier this offseason. ''And not only that, he's challenged more so from the production that Ted Ginn has had, the production that Fun (Funchess) has had, that Philly (Brown), that Greg (Olsen), everybody.''
Rivera said Benjamin's return is exciting, but he wants to make sure Newton doesn't lock in too much on the big man.
''Everyone has to understand that last year a lot of guys established who they are in this league,'' Rivera said. ''I think those (other) guys really took another step. I think our offense has to continue to grow and take steps. I know a couple years ago we were really heavy at getting the ball at Kelvin and I would love to continue to see us spread it because it will only open things up for everyone else.''
That includes the running game.
Jonathan Stewart returns to anchor a group that has rushed for at least 100 yards in an NFL-best 32 straight games, including the playoffs. Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker will see action in the backfield along with fullback Mike Tolbert.
Newton, of course, is a threat all by himself.
The Panthers have turned the read-option into a dangerous weapon behind the powerful 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback. With one more rushing touchdown Newton will move past Steve Young for the most ever by a quarterback.
Some things to watch this season for the Panthers:
ROOKIE CORNERBACKS: The Panthers are expected to start rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley at cornerback after losing All-Pro Josh Norman to free agency and Charles Tillman to retirement. That's a lot of pressure on young players, considering they will face Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston each twice this season.
However, it's clear the Panthers aren't looking back at the decision to remove the franchise tag on Norman with any trepidation.
''Football is the truest of all team games,'' Gettleman said. ''It takes 53 guys. ... I don't subscribe to the one-player-away theory. I don't believe in it. Let's find out.''
KUECHLY AND COMPANY: Behind middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers led the league in takeaways last season with 39, with 24 coming on interceptions. The Panthers scored an NFL-leading 148 points off turnovers in 2015, shattering a franchise record.
The takeaways often provided short fields for Newton to work with on the ensuing possession.
EALY'S TIME TO SHINE: After an incredible Super Bowl in which he had three sacks and forced two turnovers by Peyton Manning, defensive end Kony Ealy is looking to carry that success over to 2016.
Ealy had steadily improved throughout his second season in the league, culminating in the big game against the Broncos. But with Jared Allen gone, Carolina will need Ealy to step up and be a pass-rushing force playing opposite Charles Johnson. Johnson has something to prove after missing all of last season with a hamstring and returning to the team after taking a $6 million pay cut to return to the team.
RED-ZONE EFFICIENCY: The Panthers started off 14-0 last season in large part due to their red zone offense, converting 68.3 percent of their attempts into touchdowns - second-best in the league. Newton was near perfect inside the opponent's 20-yard line, tossing 24 touchdown passes with no interceptions.
That number could go up this season as the 6- 5, 250-pound Benjamin figures to be a big weapon near the goal line given his height advantage over smaller cornerbacks and his jumping ability.
NEWTON'S MILESTONES: Newton needs 996 yards passing and four touchdown passes to set franchise career records.
Nationally, he's the only player in NFL history to record five seasons with at least 3,000 yards passing and 400 yards rushing.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL