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Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin has created a mindset to 'dominate this year'

Kelvin Benjamin is focused on regaining the form he showed as a rookie in 2014. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelvin Benjamin had just finished another hard day of practice on a hot, muggy Tuesday that was highlighted by another spectacular catch that he made look spectacularly easy.

But the fourth-year Carolina Panthers wide receiver didn't want to talk about the catch. He didn't want to about his offseason battle with his weight or about the loss of his mother the week before training camp. He was nice about not wanting to talk, mind you.

That just wasn't where Benjamin wanted to go at the moment.

"I just want to focus on getting better," he said.

Benjamin is getting better in more ways than most of us will fully know or understand until he shares all he's been through the past five months.

He's grown as a player.

He's also grown as a person.

He's done it with an intense public spotlight at every move he makes, every pound he sheds. New wide receivers coach Lance Taylor couldn't be prouder of how Benjamin has handled everything.

"He showed a great amount of mental toughness and fortitude on his part to be able to overcome a lot of those adversities in the offseason," Taylor told ESPN.com.

That growth began with frank conversations between Benjamin, Taylor and head coach Ron Rivera on the weight of the 6-foot-5, and now 243-pound, receiver.

Benjamin reported for offseason workouts between 265 and 270 pounds. That was 10 to 15 pounds heavier than Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, listed at 6-5, 255. When his weight became public, criticism followed.

"A lot of people were down on him about his weight," Taylor said. "He never got down about it. He was positive the whole time. He said, 'Coach, I'm going to come into training camp and I'm going to be under weight.'"

Benjamin did.

"I don't know how he did it, but whatever he did he should bottle it and we could make a lot of money," Taylor said.

Benjamin met with the team nutritionist and strength and conditioning staff to map out a plan. He worked out every day and every off day. He took hot yoga classes.

"As much as anything it's a mindset," Taylor said. "... When we had that conversation with him, you could see there was a commitment to the process because he wanted to do those things."

Benjamin looks like he's in the best shape of his life. And he's still doing those little things to get better.

During down times in practice at Wofford College, Benjamin did conditioning runs with quarterback Cam Newton (6-5, 245), who is himself down at least 15 pounds from last season.

On Tuesday, while the second- and third-string units were in team drills, Benjamin was on the side working with the trainer. He's still strengthening the left knee that blew out and ended his 2015 season during a joint practice with the Miami Dolphins two years ago.

"There was a look in his eyes when I talked to him, and I was pretty confident this guy is going to get it done and do what he says he's going to do," Taylor said.

The passing of Benjamin's mother the week before camp added another level of concern for the receiver's well-being. Benjamin admitted in an Instagram post a week into camp that he was in a "dark place" after his mother died. He also wrote how feeding off the energy of his teammates helped him get back to a good place.

"He really came out of the gate strong at the beginning of training camp, really working hard at trying to come off the ball and play fast," Taylor said. "Dealing with personal loss and tragedy from a personal standpoint just a week earlier ... that's a tough thing to do.

"So you could really see his maturation as a person, as a human being as a man."

Benjamin came out strong a week ago in Carolina's preseason opener. The physicality he showed in turning a short catch into a 17-yard gain on the first play and a leaping, 23-yard touchdown catch later in the first quarter set the tone for the offense.

"I couldn't have scripted it any better if I wanted to -- and I wanted to, believe me," Taylor said. "But for him to have that kind of success, it was huge for him, too."

Beyond the off-the-field issues Benjamin has dealt with, he's coming off a 2016 season that was a disappointment after the standards he set as a rookie with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.

His 63 catches for 941 yards and seven touchdowns last season felt like a step back for a player trying to take a step forward.

"It's just like a batter," Taylor said. "Sometimes you go through a slump and you're like, ‘Man, I can't hit the freaking ball.' You need one hit, you need one home run to get you out of that slump and get you back feeling confident.

"I thought him making that first catch [against Houston] and really abusing the DB after and having a great run after the catch ... and scoring the first touchdown of the preseason, that was huge for him personally."

Benjamin made a similar catch in Tuesday's practice over outside linebacker Shaq Thompson.

"He's really worked himself back in shape," Rivera said. "He's done a nice job."

Taylor believes Benjamin is ready to dominate.

"He did all of the things in the offseason we asked him to do ... losing weight, coming in in shape and in the weight we asked him to come in," Taylor said. "And really creating a mindset for him to dominate this year, to be the No. 1 guy that we need him to be."