<
>

Benjamin makes big first impression

Kelvin Benjamin could be the playmaker to replace Steve Smith in Charlotte. AP Photo/Bob Leverone

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One by one, Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin answered questions, from why he chose to wear No. 13 for the Carolina Panthers to what he would have eaten at his draft party Thursday night had he gotten a chance.

One by one, the 28th pick of the NFL draft looked each reporter in the eye until he finished answering the question.

It was the intimidating look he sometimes gives to defensive backs he beats for big catches and touchdowns. It was a look of someone wanting to make a personal connection, a good first impression, and earn a level of trust from the get-go.

He did.

The Panthers expect the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder to make an impression on the field as well. He has to for them to get past the loss of their top four wide receivers and become the first Carolina team to have consecutive winning records.

Benjamin is so eager to get that process started that he would have just as well skipped all of Friday's pageantry of being introduced to the Charlotte media and the tour the facilities and gotten straight to work.

"I was hoping I could just start practicing with the guys when I got here today," Benjamin said.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera, standing about 10 feet away, smiled.

Rivera smiled a lot during the news conference as he listened to Benjamin say all the things a coach would want to hear from a first-round draft pick.

But what Rivera really had to like was how Benjamin described himself as a player.

"Really, just a game-changer," Benjamin said. "Physical. Going up and getting the ball. Really just trying to be that teammate to be there for his team and his coach."

That ultimately is why the Panthers picked Benjamin over USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and other players being considered at the end of the first round.

They needed a game-changer to replace Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver that was released in March. They needed a young, dynamic receiver that could team with quarterback Cam Newton for the next five to 10 years the way Joe Montana had Jerry Rice and Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis.

It's way too early to tell if Benjamin will be that kind of player, but the Panthers believe he is special and that's all that matters right now.

Size-wise, there's no doubt Benjamin is special compared to the other wide receivers in the draft. To put it into perspective, he's the same height as Carolina tight end Greg Olsen and weighs only 10 pounds less.

Or look at it this way. He's eight inches taller than Smith.

Benjamin towers over a news conference the way the Duke Energy building towers over the city of Charlotte. Even Rivera, 6 feet 3, has to look up to the 23-year-old.

The Panthers hope to use that height to their advantage, particularly in the red zone where Benjamin excelled so much in college that he took the Twitter handle @KBREDZONE.

But Benjamin is far from perfect. He needs to improve his route running. He needs to cut down on the drops that made him more of a second-round talent in the eyes of many.

He'll take advice from anyone. He credits Fred Taylor, a former running back for FSU-rival Florida, for helping him mature into the person he is today.

He's open to criticism. He wrote this on a Twitter post: "Got to love the criticism. Just some to push you I eat it all up.''

When I asked him about that, he said, "I know the type of player I am. I never like to talk about it. I just like to show. You can make people out a believer."

Benjamin apparently isn't superstitious judging by his number selection. He was No. 1 at FSU and No. 3 in high school, so 13 made sense.

He's not big into music, either. Asked what his walk-out music would have been had he gone to New York City for the draft, which he never considered, he said, "I like the little commercials that [Seattle cornerback Richard] Sherman did, 'I'm the man, I'm the man.' So it would probably have to be that."

For the moment, Benjamin is the man at Carolina.

If he can be the man once the season begins, the Panthers have a chance to be a contender once again.