Benjamin scare points at fragile situation

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- One thing was clear on Monday as the Carolina Panthers held their first practice of training camp without first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who will miss at least a few days with a bruised left knee.

They need him.

One thing was clear as quarterback Cam Newton talked about limiting his runs in camp as he continues to work the surgically-repaired left ankle back into shape.

The Panthers need him -- 100 percent.

As much as I've insisted the offense has a chance to be better than a year ago despite the loss of the top four wide receivers from a season ago -- including the team's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith -- it's a fragile situation.

Benjamin and Newton are the two biggest pieces the Panthers can't afford to break.

Fortunately for Carolina, Benjamin's injury suffered during a collision with a teammate on Sunday isn't anything that will keep him out long term. It's fortunate because at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds the 28th pick of the draft has looked liked anything but a rookie during offseason workouts and camp.

He has clearly defined himself as the No. 1 receiver and a target that Newton doesn't hesitate to throw to despite his inexperience. He has a chance to be the next Calvin Johnson sooner rather than later. He has looked so good that Smith seems like a distant memory.

Newton, who has a tendency to sail passes high at times, doesn't have to be perfect when throwing to Benjamin. The former Florida State standout showed that during Sunday's practice when he caught a couple of passes on which his height and acrobatic athletic ability came in handy.

When I asked Newton about having that luxury, he said, "For Kelvin, man, he's a playmaker."

Then he paused and said, "I see where you're trying to go, but I'm not going to go there."

Newton doesn't want to single any player out, particularly a rookie. He wants to spread his love to all his receivers, tight ends and weapons in general. It's a sign of leadership.

Newton already is showing more signs of being a leader this camp than a year ago, when he led Carolina to a 12-4 season.

The ankle has slowed him a bit. He's not running nearly as much in practice as he would have in the past, by design. The Panthers don't need him to run now. They're being smart.

They will need him to run once the season begins, and he understands that even though it's not easy holding back.

"The big picture is trying to get back 100 percent," Newton said. "The competitive side always tells a person you can go, you can go. The big picture is trying to be 100 percent by Week 1.

"I just know I'm putting myself in a position when it's time for my number to be called in the game, I will be ready to go."

So Newton is willing to step back as a runner, but not as a leader. Nobody has been more active in pumping up teammates. His longest runs of camp have come while rushing to the player who just made a big play for a flying hip bump, as he did after fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard had a good scramble on Sunday.

When asked about defensive end Greg Hardy, who said he hated that his legal issue on domestic violence has been a distraction to the team, Newton addressed it head on but with tact.

"I can say this," he said. "As a team, we're getting closer. The talks that we need to have, the conversations we need to have, have been great. We don't need to have this conversation about Greg Hardy. I will refuse to have a conversation about Greg.

"Greg understands. He's a grown man. I don't need to remind everybody how important he means to this team."

Newton is more important. The drop-off from him to backup Derek Anderson -- as well as he has been throwing -- is as big as the one between Benjamin and the rest of the receivers.

The Panthers need them to be a dangerous and productive combination to return to the playoffs and become the first in team history to record consecutive winning seasons. If they click, that will open things up for the rest of the offense.

It's a fragile situation.

That was clear on Monday.