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Ron Rivera doesn't want Kelvin Benjamin to become a crutch for QB

Kelvin Benjamin, who was out last season recovering from a torn ACL, was Cam Newton's go-to guy in 2014 at the expense of a more balanced offense. AP Photo/Bill Wippert

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It took Kelvin Benjamin going on crutches last season for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to lose his.

Coach Ron Rivera wants it to stay that way.

Benjamin is on pace with rehabilitation from surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered during 2015 training camp to resume his position as Carolina’s top wide receiver.

Rivera went so far last week at the NFL owners meeting as to say the 2014 first-round pick would be one of the league’s elite receivers this season.

Rivera just doesn’t want the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin to resume his position as a crutch for Newton.

That often happened in 2014. Benjamin received 44.8 percent of the wide receiver targets and 41.2 percent of the catches. Jerricho Cotchery was a distant second at 24.1 and 25.7 percent.

A year ago, with Benjamin out, Ted Ginn Jr. led Carolina wide receivers with 32.6 percent of the catches. Cotchery was second at 21.4 percent, followed by Devin Funchess and Philly Brown at 20.1 percent.

It was a more balanced attack.

Total touchdown catches for the wide receivers rose from 14 in 2014 -- Benjamin had nine of them -- to 22 last season. The Panthers went from 19th in the NFL in points per game (21.2) to first at 31.2.

“The thing we don’t want to get to [is] where it’s Kelvin 15 catches and everyone else one or two," Rivera said. “What happened this year in the development of our offense was the ball was spread, and that truly helped us."

Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen became more productive as well. He went from 84 catches for 1,008 yard and six touchdowns to 77 catches for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns.

The total catch count dropped by seven, but the other numbers went up.

Benjamin’s presence should only help.

The NFL Network likes the potential of Benjamin and Olsen together so much that it ranked them on the bubble of being among the top five pass-catching duos in 2016.

The Panthers are so confident in what Benjamin brings that they didn’t attempt to re-sign Cotchery. They are happy with a core group of Benjamin, Ginn, Brown, Devin and Stephen Hill, who also is coming off ACL surgery.

What Benjamin gives Carolina is that true No. 1 receiver that Newton didn’t have last season. That will be big, particularly in clutch situations where a playmaker is needed.

Rivera just doesn’t want him to become a target where defenses can predict where Newton is going to throw.

“Kelvin is just another piece to that puzzle," Rivera said. “He may become a primary like Greg is and take some of that burden off of Greg, but I hope it’s not one of those where it’s 13 and 15 (targets) here and two or three here."