Panthers expect offseason additions will free up WR Benjamin

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Help has arrived for Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Coach Ron Rivera is excited about the overall depth and competition at wide receiver, saying it is ''much better'' than it was a year ago when Carolina was in the midst of a major overhaul after cutting ties with its top four wideouts.

The Panthers brought back veteran Ted Ginn Jr. and drafted Devin Funchess from Michigan in the second round this offseason to go along with returners Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Pro Bowl tight Greg Olsen, potentially bulking up a passing game that finished 19th in the NFL in 2014.

Rivera said Thursday, ''We think this group will be very strong for us'' and should eliminate some of the pressure on the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin, who turned in a record-setting rookie season despite seeing plenty of double teams as the year went on.

''It takes a lot of pressure off Kelvin, it takes a lot of pressure off Greg and it takes pressure off the running game,'' Rivera said.

The changes haven't gone unnoticed to Benjamin, who has been relegated to observer this week at OTAs due to a strained hamstring. He pulled the muscle while running routes two weeks ago and it's unclear when he'll return to practice.

He's anxious to get on the field with guys like Funchess, a versatile receiver with great route running skills and Ginn, who adds a deep threat speed. Philly Brown, Jarrett Boykin and Stephen Hill also could figure into the mix at wide receiver.

''The more weapons the better,'' Benjamin said with a wide smile.

The Panthers normally keep four or five wide receivers on the 53-man roster and generally activate four on game day, so Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman will have decisions to make when roster cuts arrive.

''We're pretty deep,'' Benjamin said. ''It's a lot of talent in that room. That's what we like. A lot of speed right now. You've got to love that.... The more weapons the better.''

Carolina cut Steve Smith and let Brandon LaFell, Ginn and Domenik Hixon walk in free agency last offseason, forcing them to basically start over at wide receiver.

Benjamin, a first-round pick from Florida State in 2014, quickly helped fill the void.

He developed a close off-the-field relationship with quarterback Cam Newton last spring and went on to catch 93 passes for 1,008 yards and had nine touchdowns - all franchise rookie records.

Still he flew under the radar nationally, in large part due to the emergence of other receiver rookies like Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry.

While Benjamin isn't the type to dwell on his own stats - he regularly deflects praise to his teammates while talking about the importance of winning championships - it's pretty clear he could be in for an even bigger statistical season if opposing teams are forced to pick and choose who to double team.

''It will open more things up, so defenses can't run my way (and) game plan against me,'' Benjamin said.

Cotchery, the veteran receiver on the team, said he's anxious to see Benjamin and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Funchess - the ''two tall trees,'' he called them - in action this season.

''The good thing about Kelvin and Devin is they are willing to learn,'' Cotchery said. ''They have picked up the offense pretty well and are able to soak up the offense.''

NOTES: Funchess did not attend practice Thursday because he attending the NFL rookie symposium, while cornerback Charles Tillman was out dealing with a family matter. ... Newton looked strong throwing the deep ball, hooking up on bombs with Hill and Brown. ... Michael Oher was working as the first-team left tackle in practice.

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AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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