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Benjamin could buck trend of rookie WRs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelvin Benjamin was surrounded by reporters who were trying to get a feel for how much pressure the Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver is feeling heading into his first NFL game.

"I just play," Benjamin said as he looked ahead to Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay.

No butterflies?

"Nah," the 28th pick of the draft said. "Football is second nature to me, man. No butterflies."

Is that why you're always smiling and loose on the field?

"Yeah," Benjamin said. "I'm always in a good mood on the field. It's football. Too many people can't get to say they play the game. Never take it for granted."

This is why Benjamin doesn't feel the weight of the world to replace Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was released in March.

This is why the former Florida State standout has a chance to avoid the typical struggles of rookie wide receivers -- in particular rookie wideouts selected in the first round.

And there is a history of struggles.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 38 wide receivers have been selected in the first round in the past 10 seasons. Thirty-three of those have played in the team's opener. They have averaged 2.5 catches, 28.1 yards and 0.1 touchdown.

Only four -- A.J. Green, Percy Harvin, Calvin Johnson and Mike Williams -- have caught a touchdown in their first game. Four of the 33 weren't targeted in their first game and seven didn't have a catch.

None went over 100 yards.

You have to go back 11 years to find the last rookie to debut with more than 100 yards receiving. Arizona's Anquan Boldin had 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns against Detroit in 2003.

In Benjamin's favor is his size. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he's a bigger target than most rookie receivers. That he already has a good rapport with quarterback Cam Newton helps, as well.

He led the team in preseason receptions with 12 for 173 yards and one touchdown.

Tampa Bay's defense is ready for Benjamin. The Buccaneers have a solid front going against a Carolina line with a lot of unknowns. Newton may not have much time to throw. Newton may not be throwing if there's a setback with his rib injury that forces backup Derek Anderson to play.

Regardless, Benjamin isn't stressed. He's approaching this like any other game.

"My coaches, what they taught me is clutter, off-the-field stuff, you can't worry about that," he said. "You've got to perform. That's what you've got to focus on, going out there and doing your job. If you're focusing on what they're saying, then you're not out there performing.

"Then ... you're busted."

Benjamin is used to the spotlight and pressure situations. His last catch at Florida State was the game winner against Auburn with 13 seconds left in the BCS National Championship.

He understands that the expectations on him are high. He understands he's established himself as a legitimate No. 1 receiver with his performance in the offseason and preseason.

"I'm taking it and running with it," Benjamin said. "You've just got to grow up fast."

That the opener will be about three hours from his hometown of Belle Glade, Florida -- where he grew up cheering for Buccaneers such as running back Mike Alstott and defensive tackle Warren Sapp -- just adds to Benjamin's excitement.

"They try to prepare us for the heat, but I'm already ready for it," Benjamin said of the hot, muggy temperatures the Panthers will face in Tampa.

Benjamin appears ready for just about anything at this point.