Football / Sports

The Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen (88) waits to make a reception against the Buffalo Bills' Corey Graham (20) in the first quarter in exhibition action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (David T. Foster, III/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Kelvin Benjamin has big grab in Panthers' loss to Bills

So that's why the Carolina Panthers let Steve Smith go -- or at least one of the reasons.

It was one catch in an August exhibition, but rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin showed why the Panthers envisioned him as their future No. 1 receiver when they drafted him in the first round in May.

If Benjamin keeps making catches like Friday's, the future will be starting now.

Benjamin's falling-down, 29-yard touchdown grab easily was the highlight of the Panthers' 20-18 loss against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium.

Benjamin's final catch at Florida State won the BCS title game for the Seminoles against Auburn. His first NFL reception -- exhibition edition -- lacked the drama, but was no less impressive.

Benjamin ran a go route down the left sideline and stumbled when Bills cornerback and Rock Hill native Stephon Gilmore made contact with him, but Benjamin came down with Derek Anderson's pass in the end zone to put the Panthers up 6-3 on the first play of the second quarter.

"Derek threw a great ball and gave me a chance to make a play," Benjamin said. "I got tangled with the corner but never took my eyes off the ball and made the play."

Said Anderson: "We had man coverage on Kelvin. The corner bailed on him, and he just made a great play."

Panthers backup kicker Jordan Gay missed the 33-yard extra point, becoming the first kicker to miss the longer extra point the NFL is experimenting with during the first two weeks of exhibitions.

Benjamin, the 28th overall pick, was targeted only one other time in three series, when Anderson led him too far on an out route in the first quarter. But his catch Friday, along with his strong showing during the first two weeks of training camp, are good signs for an offense that replaced its top four receivers during the offseason.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman believed he could find a replacement for Smith in a deep receiving draft, even picking late in the first round.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin is the big target Cam Newton didn't have during his first three seasons.

Newton watched Friday's game from the sideline in workout gear. The Panthers have carefully mapped out Newton's practice and rehab schedule following March surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.

But they were cagey about Newton's status in the days leading to Friday's game, perhaps not wanting to discourage fans from coming to an exhibition on a night when rain was in the forecast.

The rains never came, but the play was sloppy after the starters began leaving.

Anderson, beginning his fourth year as Newton's backup, completed 5-of-7 passes for 65 yards and scrambled twice to convert third downs. But he saw room for improvement.

"We just need to be cleaner. Get out of the huddle and see things better," Anderson said. "I was seeing the defense pretty good, but we can always get better seeing coverage. We need to build on this and try to get better before heading to Tampa Bay (in Week 1)."

Matt Blanchard, the fourth-team quarterback who replaced Anderson, didn't fare as well. Blanchard was 2-of-8 for 13 yards, was sacked twice and lost two turnovers -- a fumble and an interception -- to finish with a quarterback rating of 0.0.

Former Minnesota quarterback/receiver Joe Webb played the entire second half.

The Panthers' first-team defense picked up where it left off last season, when it finished No. 2 in the league behind Super Bowl-champion Seattle.

The Bills drove to the Panthers' 2-yard line on their opening drive, but Carolina turned them away on back-to-back runs by Fred Jackson. Defensive end Greg Hardy knifed into the backfield to stop Jackson on third down, while the Panthers gang-tackled him on fourth down.

On fourth-and-1 from the 2, outside linebacker Chase Blackburn took on fullback Frank Summers' lead block, clogging the hole and holding Jackson short of the first-down stick.

Hardy was greeted warmly when he ran out of the tunnel for his first game since his bench conviction on domestic violence charges last month. Hardy, who appealed the decision and has a jury trial scheduled in November, had the Panthers' only sack of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel.

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

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