Panthers draft Benjamin with 28th pick
The Panthers hope they've found a long-term replacement for wide receiver Steve Smith and put the smile back on quarterback Cam Newton's face at the same time.
After parting ways with Newton's four most productive wide receivers from last season, the Panthers selected Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State with the 28th pick in the first round Thursday night, giving Newton a 6-foot-5, 241-pound receiver who excels in the red zone.
"I'm sure Cam is not mad at me now," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said with a laugh.
Benjamin had 54 receptions for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns last season as a redshirt sophomore for the national champion Seminoles.
"I'm young and I have a lot of proving to do," Benjamin said.
Gettleman said Benjamin still has plenty to learn but likes his physical tools.
"You can't coach 6-foot-5, 240," Gettleman said. "We feel really, really good about this pick."
The Panthers believes Benjamin can develop into Carolina's No. 1 receiver.
"His size and catch radius is phenomenal," coach Ron Rivera said. "He has a high ceiling."
Benjamin fills a major need for Carolina.
Carolina's top four wide receivers from last year's NFC South championship team are gone including Smith, their all-time leader in receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns.
The Panthers released Smith, and Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon left via free agency. They restocked the shelves by adding free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant.
The Panthers haven't had much luck drafting wide receivers high in the draft.
Benjamin is the first receiver taken in the first round by Carolina since Rae Carruth in 1997. Carruth went down in NFL history for all of the wrong reasons. He was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using an instrument to destroy an unborn child and is serving 18 to 24 years in prison.
Carolina used second round picks on Southern California wide receivers Keary Colbert in 2004 and Dwayne Jarrett in 2007, but both failed to develop and quickly played themselves out of the league.
The Panthers also need a left tackle after Jordan Gross retired following 11 seasons in Carolina. But five offensive tackles were taken before Carolina's pick and plenty of options at wide receiver were left on the board, including Trojans wide receiver Marqise Lee.
Benjamin was the fifth wide receiver selected in the NFL draft behind Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks.
Benjamin spent two years at Florida State before turning professional. As a freshman he played in 14 games but only caught 30 passes for 495 yards and four TDs. But he burst on the scene last season, dominating competition with his size and leaping ability.
Gettleman said he was particularly impressed with how Benjamin improved at the end of the season.
He had 21 receptions for 446 yards and eight TDs in his final four games including the winning touchdown catch in the BCS national championship game against Auburn, Newton's old team.
"I'm a big physical receiver who can go up and get the ball at its highest point," Benjamin said.
Benjamin said he's never met Newton, but said he's been a Carolina fan ever since he joined the Panthers in 2011.
The Panthers have two picks on Saturday — one in the second round (60th overall) and another in the third (92nd).