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Panthers No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin a gem among star-studded rookie receiving class

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin says he has no plans on slowing down after needing just 11 games to establish new franchise rookie records for receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns in a season.

So pardon the big man if he scoffs at the idea of hitting the so-called rookie wall.

Benjamin laughs and says "it better be a pretty tall wall."

The physically imposing 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin has developed into Cam Newton's favorite target this season and has proven Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman hit a home run with the 25th pick in this year's NFL draft.

Benjamin ranks second among a strong rookie receiving class in catches (54) and yards receiving (768) and first in touchdown receptions (8), putting himself in contention for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

And yet, he seems capable of so much more.

Benjamin can be aggravatingly brilliant. On one play he'll drop an easy pass or cut off his route to cause an interception. On the next, he'll make a spectacular one-handed leaping grab in the end zone that reminds you of his incredible potential.

Coach Ron Rivera said that inconsistency comes down to inexperience.

Benjamin spent only two years at Florida State, including one as a starter. He turned pro after catching the winning touchdown pass in last year's national championship game against Auburn.

"He has shown a lot of growth and is starting to understand what it takes to be a pro at this level," Rivera said. "At Florida State it was evident that he was by far the better player. Here there are guys who challenge him."

Veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said Benjamin "wants to be great."

"He listens," Cotchery said. "You hear the stories about guys of this generation and they don't really listen to people. But he's a guy that takes in everything that Coach teaches him, and even listens to me."

The Panthers drafted Benjamin as a replacement for Steve Smith with visions of him becoming the team's No. 1 receiver down the road.

They didn't know he would take to that role so quickly.

Benjamin emerged as the team's top receiver in training camp. He opened the season as the starter and now leads the Panthers in yards receiving and touchdowns.

"Since Day 1, we never thought about him as a rookie," Newton said. "And sometimes I have to remind myself that this is just his first year. Over time, he gets it. And when he gets it, it's fun to watch and he's fun to throw to."

Newton said Benjamin has even been there for him off the field.

"He has been one of the people calling me and tell me to keep my head up," said Newton, who has struggled at times during the team's current five-game losing streak.

Benjamin's numbers sometimes get overlooked as part of a rookie receiving class that includes Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Jarvis Landry and Brandin Cooks.

But the Seahawks' Richard Sherman praised the big rookie after he made a highlight-reel catch on a long pass between the cornerback and safety Earl Thomas during an October game.

"He's huge, and he has a huge catching radius," Sherman said. "You have to be aware of all that. He has speed. He made some fantastic plays."

Cotchery said Benjamin has a chance to become one of the league's best receivers if he continues to listen to Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, a former NFL player.

"He can be as great as he wants to be," Cotchery said. "Right now he's around a great coach who will continue to identify things he needs to work on. Coach Proehl is so detailed that he will find the smallest things you need to correct — and that will be a huge benefit to Kelvin. Because at the end of the day Kelvin really hasn't played a lot of football yet."


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