SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The most important thing the Carolina offense learned last season is that there really is life without star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The lesson the Panthers plan on teaching opponents this year is how dangerous they can be with Benjamin finally back in the fold. That's the silver lining that couldn't have been foreseen when Benjamin tore the ACL in his left knee last summer. His return only makes the defending NFC champions far more potent as a new season prepares to kick off.
It didn't take long for the Panthers to realize they had something special in the No. 28 overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. He caught six balls for 92 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown in the 2014 season opener -- and went on to rack up 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and nine scores during a fine rookie campaign. This instant success spawned great expectations for Year 2. Then his knee buckled in a 1-on-1 drill during a joint camp practice with the Miami Dolphins. His sophomore season was over before it began.
"I think it will be crazy with all of us out there," Benjamin said. "When I came in as a rookie, I got a lot of attention because I was a No. 1 pick. I think Cam fed off that because I got a lot of the targets. Once I got hurt, the other guys showed their talent. Now that Cam is more comfortable with all of us, it's just going to make us more explosive."
Benjamin remains the key piece in that equation. Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen led the Panthers with 77 receptions and 1,104 yards in 2015, but Benjamin gives the team a dynamic presence downfield, over the middle and in the red zone. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he's a matchup nightmare for just about any cornerback. The only thing Benjamin really needs to prove in the coming weeks is that his confidence is back where it should be.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has made a point of bringing Benjamin along slowly. The wideout was limited during the team's offseason workouts, and coaches have been closely monitoring his repetitions in training camp. Rivera doesn't even plan on using Benjamin much in the team's first preseason game Thursday night at Baltimore. Rivera figures it's better to increase his star receiver's workload on Aug. 20, when the Panthers travel to Tennessee.
Still, as Rivera admits, it's not easy to keep Benjamin from getting too far ahead of himself.
"The hard part with Kelvin is that he gets frustrated really fast," Rivera said. "He still has heavy legs and I have to tell him, 'Kelvin, you're not in football shape yet.' He sees Devin and Philly running around like it's nothing and he's the one who is struggling a little. I keep telling him that he just needs to keep plugging along. He's starting to get his confidence back."
It's an understatement to say last season was heartbreaking for Benjamin. His knee exploded in training camp, and his spirits nosedived in the weeks that followed. He'd try to get through the days by hanging out with his family or visiting with his teammates when they had free time. The first time Benjamin actually felt better about his rehabilitation was when he jogged on a treadmill three months after his operation.
"It felt like I scored a touchdown when I did that," the 25-year-old said.
Benjamin eventually learned plenty while watching his teammates go 15-1 in the regular season before ultimately losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50. He studied other receivers around the league -- such as Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown and Julio Jones -- to see what they did to succeed. He also lifted more weights to stay focused, and coaches noticed significant improvement in his upper-body strength. Benjamin actually packed on so much muscle at one point that Rivera said, "He looked like one of our defensive ends when you were walking behind him."
That extra bulk will come in handy as Benjamin prepares for his return. When asked what he wants to show people this fall, he said, "I just want to be that spectacular player when my name is called. I want to be able to go up and get the ball, be a big red-zone threat, help out with the blocking and, really, just win."
Benjamin added that this receiving unit reminds him of the one he played with during his final year at Florida State (in 2013), when the Seminoles almost had three different receivers surpass the 1,000-yard mark. The important thing to remember about that year is that FSU also won the national championship.
Like his teammates, Benjamin would love to see this coming season end on a similar high. The odds of that happening will be substantially greater if he's anywhere close to what he used to be.