Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will be tough for Panthers to replace

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers were approximately three and a half hours of practice time away from escaping training camp without a major injury to a major player.

Then wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went to the ground holding his knee during Wednesday's joint practice against the Miami Dolphins. An MRI back in Charlotte revealed a torn ACL that ended his season.

The Panthers went 2-0 in 2014 when Derek Anderson replaced injured quarterback Cam Newton.

Replacing Benjamin won't be that easy.

Benjamin was the only true No. 1 receiver on Carolina's roster. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he possesses rare size and speed that forces defenses to account for him on every play.

The 28th pick of the 2014 draft makes the passing game better and prevents teams from loading up against the run.

Corey Brown hasn't proven he can do that.

Neither has Ted Ginn Jr., Jarrett Boykin, Jerricho Cotchery or Brenton Bersin. Devin Funchess (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) is the closest candidate, and he's a rookie with a steep learning curve.

There's a reason the Panthers were excited about their depth at receiver, but it all began with Benjamin. He reported to camp in tremendous shape after being called out for being overweight during offseason workouts. He was having a tremendous camp.

Now he is done for the season because his knee gave way while making a simple cut during a one-on-one drill against Miami defensive back Reshad Jones.

One of the first players to Benjamin's side was Newton. He didn't leave until he'd helped Benjamin on a golf cart.

Newton knows better than most what he's lost. Benjamin turned passes that sailed over ordinary-sized receivers into ordinary catches. He jump-started the offense, as evidenced in Friday's 25-24 preseason victory over Buffalo when he used his size to draw a 25-yard pass interference penalty.

He made tough catches over the middle, as he did on the next play against the Bills for 19 yards.

According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, Benjamin was the most targeted rookie wide receiver and seventh-most targeted wide receiver overall last season.

He caught eight passes of 20 or more yards. Next closest were Cotchery, Brown and tight end Greg Olsen with two.

That's significant when you consider Newton struggles to complete deep passes.

"He's a heck of a player," Cotchery said. "I always talk about being the lead dog, and he was the guy who has taken on that role and was ready to go and locked in and focused."

Asked if there was anybody on the roster close to duplicating Benjamin's style, Cotchery was honest.

"I don't know," he said. "He's a heck of a player. They've done a great job of creating a lot of competition in the room. This is one of those instances where it'll benefit you by having guys who have that opportunity to step up.

"That's what we need right now."

Ginn immediately adopted the next player up mentality. But the next player up isn't close to Benjamin.

Even Ginn realized that.

"You gotta realize he's our No. 1 guy and not having your No. 1 guy can hurt you a little bit," he said. "Funchess is coming up and we just need to get on him, as a leader in the room, and tell him how big his role can be now."

Perhaps Funchess can be that guy. Nobody expected Benjamin to immediately replace Carolina's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, last season.

He did with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.

Funchess showed flashes of that potential with two catches for 53 yards against the Bills. But he hasn't demonstrated the consistency Benjamin showed from the get-go last year.

"Funchess had a nice little preseason game last game," cornerback Josh Norman said. "So guys like that can step up and come in and be big for us. We'll see what happens."

Whatever happens will happen in Charlotte when the Panthers return home after Thursday's final practice against the Dolphins at Wofford College.

Funchess isn't expected to practice after tweaking a hamstring late Wednesday.

As Norman said, players are ready to go home. Unfortunately for Carolina, Benjamin went home a day early.