<
>

Just another catch? Kelvin Benjamin much more than that for Panthers

Kelvin Benjamin's first regular-season touchdown was highlight-reel material. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

TAMPA, Fla. -- Maybe the best thing about Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is he doesn't know how good he is.

He called Sunday's 26-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter of a 20-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers "just another catch," and it was anything but.

Or maybe Benjamin does know how good he is. Asked what message his six-catch, 92-yard debut sent to the rest of the NFL, he smiled and said, "Tampa Bay fans are probably saying they should have drafted me."

The Bucs drafted Texas A&M's Mike Evans, considered the second-best wide receiver in the draft, at No. 7. Clemson's Sammy Watkins, considered the best receiver, went No. 4 to Buffalo.

Watkins debuted with three catches for 31 yards. Evans had five catches for 37 yards.

Nothing spectacular.

Benjamin's 92 yards were the seventh-most for a wide receiver in the first game of his rookie season since 2001. Were it not for a 110-yard receiving effort by undrafted Allen Hurns for Jacksonville on Sunday, Benjamin would be sixth on the list.

And it's an impressive list: Anquan Boldin 217 yards, Eddie Royal 146, DeSean Jackson 106, Julian Edelman 98 and Demaryius Thomas 97.

When you've been dubbed the heir apparent to replace the greatest receiver, perhaps greatest player, in franchise history, you'd better be impressive.

That player, by the way, had a pretty good day for his new team in Baltimore. Steve Smith caught seven passes for 118 yards, 80 on a touchdown on which he literally threw the defensive back to the ground around the 10.

Had Benjamin had a ho-hum day, the critics might have begun claiming once again what a mistake it was to let Smith go in March.

Instead, Benjamin kept the focus on himself.

He was targeted eight times by quarterback Derek Anderson, replacing injured Cam Newton (fractured ribs). Benjamin had no drops and made a first down on 63 percent of his six catches. All other Carolina receivers accounted for first downs 35 percent of the time.

The former Florida State star averaged 11.5 yards a catch, making most in tight traffic over the middle. The rest of the team averaged 5.8 yards a catch.

"He's got a lot of confidence in who he is, and he makes a lot of plays for us," coach Ron Rivera said.

Take the touchdown that gave the Panthers a 17-0 lead. Cornerback Mike Jenkins was draped all over Benjamin so tight that it's hard to believe the ball got to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound rookie.

The officials actually called Jenkins for pass interference, which the Panthers declined.

Not only did Benjamin say it was routine -- "OK," in his words -- he said he was "pretty sure I'll make greater catches than that down the line."

If he does, Carolina fans might one day talk about Benjamin the way they did Smith for most of the past 13 seasons. There are no signs that won't happen. Benjamin has been impressive from the first catch he made at a rookie minicamp.

General manager Dave Gettleman bent over and held his heart that day when Benjamin soared to snag a pass with one hand with two defenders on him.

Now that one seems like "just another catch."

The more Benjamin makes catches like that seem routine, the more he'll open things up for the rest of the offense. One of the reasons tight end Greg Olsen was so open for a 5-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was that the safety had to keep an eye on Benjamin, single-covered on the outside.

"He definitely was watching me," Benjamin said. "That's the beauty of football. You double-down me, it opens it up for other guys."

Maybe that's the best thing about Benjamin.