Panthers have No. 1 receiver in Benjamin

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are in a two tight end set, which means the defense has to commit eight in the box, which puts cornerback Melvin White one-on-one with rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Quarterback Cam Newton drops back and lofts a high pass in the direction of the 6-foot-5 Benjamin running down the left sideline. Benjamin soars into the air and comes down with the football.

The crowd at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium cheers.

Carolina coaches smile.

To those -- including coach Ron Rivera prior to the draft -- that said the Panthers didn't necessarily need a true No. 1 receiver after releasing Steve Smith, you can stop that debate.

They have one in Benjamin, who returned to practice on Saturday for the first time since bruising his left knee on Sunday.

This is what the former Florida State standout brings to the offense, why he will make even the most diehard Smith fans forget about the seemingly harsh way Carolina's all-time leading receiver was let go.

"Yes, he does," wide receiver coach Rick Proehl said when I asked if Benjamin looked like a No. 1 receiver. "It's obvious."

It's also early, as Proehl quickly reminded. But he also admitted early returns are looking good.

"There are going to be some trials he's going to go through," Proehl said. "But if you keep making plays like he is right now they're going to come up and press him. How he adjusts and how he adapts will be his next step in being a No. 1 receiver.

"But every indication, right now ... he has a great feel for the game."

Benjamin still makes rookie mistakes, but he doesn't look like a rookie. And as Proehl noted, the misperception that Benjamin wasn't advanced in running good routes, "that's not true at all."

The perception that you can't coach Benjamin's size is true. Combine that with his route running and sneaky-fast speed and you have a weapon that defenses will have to respect from the get-go.

"No question," Proehl said. "The catches he's made have been amazing. You don't have to put it in a tight window. Just throw it up and put it in the general area and he's going to come down with it. That's what he brings to the table."

The Carolina defense certainly pays attention to Benjamin. When he lined up inside at the slot with Brenton Bersin and Tiquan Underwood on the outside during a red-zone play, defenders were screaming "13 in the slot" like it was a fire drill.

"They're going to have to [pay attention]," Proehl said. "He's got to make those plays, starting in preseason. But if he does and when he does, it's going to open it up for other guys."

Tight end Greg Olsen, as Proehl noted of last season's leading receiver, "should be ecstatic."

"Now they can't double him, and it's going to open things for him down the field as well as [Jerricho Cotchery] and [Jason] Avant and all the other guys," he added.

Among the other guys is tight end Ed Dickson, a free agent acquisition from Baltimore who sometimes lines up wide like a receiver. He's having a camp almost as impressive as Benjamin's.

"He's a stud, too," Proehl said. "You look at him and you're like, 'How did we get a guy like that? How was he on the street?' He's opened my eyes. He's a helluva player."

Dickson is a big reason the Panthers effectively can go to the two-tight-end set as they could in 2011 when Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards as a rookie with Jeremy Shockey opposite Olsen.

That season, the 5-9 Smith had 79 catches, his highest total in his past six seasons.

Benjamin should benefit in similar ways, maybe more because of his size. He looks unstoppable on the alley-oop pass like the one on which he beat White.

Can he be stopped on that play? I had to ask.

"Coach Ricky, he always told me just to go up and get the ball at its highest point," Benjamin said. "If I can do that, probably not."

Just what you would expect a No. 1 receiver to say.