Football / Sports

Panthers take Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in first round

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have who they hope is their wide receiver of the future.

The Panthers continued the overhaul of their receiving corps Thursday when they took former Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Despite picking late in the first round of a receiver-rich draft, the Panthers had a choice between Benjamin and Southern Cal wideout Marqise Lee.

But as was the case last year when he took defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the first round, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman wasted no time calling in the pick.

Gettleman said the choice of Benjamin over the 6-foot, 192-pound Lee came down to size.

"You can't coach 6-5, 240," Gettleman said. "He's got a lot of upside. ... He gives us a legitimate threat to have a No. 1."

Benjamin celebrated with his family and friends in Florida.

Benjamin, 23, said he's been a Panthers' fan since they drafted quarterback Cam Newton in 2011.

"I guess you could say when Cam got there, I always dreamed I'd come in there and play with Cam, contribute to the organization," Benjamin said on a conference call minutes after being drafted.

Benjamin said Newton reminds him of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who -- like Newton -- won a Heisman Trophy and led his team to a national championship.

"Just his will to compete and win -- that's something Jameis has," Benjamin said. "That's something I love in a quarterback. I'll go out and do anything for him."

Benjamin, 6-5 and 240 pounds, caught 54 passes last season for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, pulling down the game-winning score against Auburn in the BCS title game.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he was impressed with Benjamin's response when Rivera asked him about his game-winning, 2-yard catch with 13 seconds left against Auburn.

"He said, 'I wasn't going to let the quarterback down,'" Rivera said. "I loved that confidence. And I love the fact that he had his quarterback's back."

Benjamin isn't a blazer (he ran the 40 in 4.61 seconds at the combine). But he has an 83-inch wingspan and immediately gives quarterback Newton a big red-zone target.

"I'm sure that Cam's not mad at me now," Gettleman said.

Asked what his strengths are, Benjamin said: "Just being a physical receiver, going up and getting the ball at the highest point, blocking at the point (of attack), and just coming out and being a game-changer."

Gettleman said college scouting director Don Gregory was confident Benjamin would be available at 28. Gettleman said he knew in his "kishkes," the Yiddish word for "guts," Benjamin would be there.

Since the week in March when the Panthers lost their top four receivers from last season -- cutting franchise receiving leader Steve Smith and seeing three other wideouts leave in free agency -- signs pointed to Carolina taking a receiver in the first round.

Gettleman knew this draft was deep at receiver, and part of the reason Smith was released was management's belief he would not be a good mentor to a young wideout.

Benjamin said he didn't want to try to replace Smith, whom he called a "great receiver."

The Panthers have drafted a wide receiver in the first round only once before, taking Rae Carruth with the 27th pick in 1997.

NFL Network analyst and former Dallas Cowboys wideout Michael Irvin called Benjamin "one of the biggest steals in the draft." Irvin compared Benjamin to Brandon Marshall, the Chicago Bears' 6-4, 230-pound wideout.

Gettleman recently talked about the 2009 draft, when six receivers were taken in the first round. Gettleman at the time was the pro personnel director for the Giants, who took former North Carolina receiver Hakeem Nicks 29th overall in 2009.

Three wideouts were taken in the first 12 picks Thursday -- Clemson's Sammy Watkins (No. 4 to Buffalo), Texas A&M's Mike Evans (No. 7 to Tampa Bay) and LSU's Odell Beckham (No. 12 to Giants).

The Saints traded up from No. 27 to 20 to take Oregon State wideout Brandin Cooks, who has been compared to Smith because of his quickness and short stature.

But with the way the picks fell in front of Carolina, Benjamin was still on the board.

Rivera said he expects recently acquired receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to take Benjamin "under their wings."

And while Benjamin is far from a finished product and will need to develop his route-running skills, Rivera said he can help immediately.

"He adds a little something. He's a little different than the other guys," Rivera said. "His size and catch radius is phenomenal. We think he has the ability to ascend. He has a high ceiling."

The Panthers could go in a couple of directions during the second and third rounds Friday night. They still need an offensive tackle following Jordan Gross' retirement, and Gettleman said he'd also like a cornerback.

Available cornerbacks include Clemson's Bashaud Breeland, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Pierre Desir from Division II Lindenwood.

Considering the big drop-off after the first-round tackles, the Panthers might wait until the middle rounds to take a tackle. Gettleman also left open the possibility he would not be afraid to take a "blue goose" pass rusher to add to the Panthers' already stout front four.

Oregon State's Scott Crichton, Missouri's Kony Ealy and North Carolina's Kareem Martin are among the defensive ends expected to get picked in the second round.

And if Gettleman decides to double down at receiver -- as he did last year with a 1-2 defensive tackle punch -- a slew of highly rated wideouts remain.

The list includes Indiana's Cody Latimer, Fresno State's Davante Adams, LSU's Jarvis Landry, Clemson's Martavis Bryant, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, Wyoming's Robert Herron and Colorado's Paul Richardson.

(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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