CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelvin Benjamin playfully stood behind the Plexiglas backdrop the Carolina Panthers use for interviews while quarterback Cam Newton answered questions after the final session of June minicamp.
It was a funny moment. The NFL MVP did his best to ignore the third-year wide receiver. Newton refused to look over his shoulder to see what Benjamin was doing to break his concentration.
That was the image we were left with when the Panthers began their summer break from X's and O's.
But as Carolina players refocus and report for training camp on Wednesday at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, we are reminded of another image, the one that defined last year’s camp. It was of Benjamin writhing on the ground after he suffered a season-ending knee injury while making a routine cut in a one-on-one drill against the Miami Dolphins.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how it happened:
That led to Newton standing over his favorite target while a cart was brought to the field.
That led to Benjamin being carted off the field.
The injury left Carolina without its No. 1 receiver and with major questions entering the season. Those questions were soon forgotten as the Panthers began 14-0 and Newton had his best season ever.
There's no doubt that Benjamin will provide an upgrade. General manager Dave Gettleman said it’s like having an extra first-round draft pick.
Newton grew as a quarterback when he was forced to spread the ball among a receiving corps that had no star. This camp could be about resisting the temptation to lean on Benjamin, which Newton often did in 2014, when the first-round pick out of Florida State had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
“One of our greatest strengths as an offense last year was the versatility," tight end Greg Olsen said in June. “At the same time, the ability to just play a role by that wide receiver group, that was a catalyst for our season developing the way it did. Adding Kelvin to that is just going to help."
Said head coach Ron Rivera during the offseason: “The thing we don’t want to get to [is] where it’s Kelvin 15 catches and everyone else one or two. What happened this year in the development of our offense was the ball was spread, and that truly helped us."
Benjamin was the MVP of the 2015 camp before his left knee buckled. He was sleeker and appeared faster than in his rookie season, when his 245 pounds were somewhat of an issue.
All eyes will be on Benjamin when he runs his first route on Thursday at Gibbs Stadium, the first time he’ll have a full practice since he went down at camp a year ago. There are no concerns from the staff. Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said in June that Benjamin was strong enough to go full, but the training staff didn’t want to rush him back.
Benjamin won’t be the only big story of camp. Another question is who will replace Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with the Washington Redskins after Carolina rescinded his franchise tag. There will be curiosity around how middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will bounce back from offseason shoulder surgery. The return of wide receiver Stephen Hill, who also suffered a season-ending ACL tear in camp last year, will get a few headlines.
But Benjamin will be the most anticipated story of camp because this is where his 2015 season ended, and his ability could help Newton and the offense become even more potent.
It’s an image many have been waiting for since training camp a year ago.