Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, left, jokes with receivers Kelvin Benjamin, center, and Devin Funchess, right, during NFL football practice in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, May 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton
May 31, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kelvin Benjamin is back on the football field running and catches passes.

Now the question becomes how will the Carolina Panthers use the 6-foot-5, 250-pound wide receiver next season.

Benjamin missed out on the Panthers' 17-2 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee last summer in training camp. Despite the setback, the Panthers led the league in scoring and reached the Super Bowl before losing 24-10 to the Denver Broncos.

They did so in part because league MVP Cam Newton spread the ball around more. Nine Carolina players had at least 10 catches last season and five had more than 30. That wasn't the case in 2014 when Benjamin was clearly Newton's No. 1 target, catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.

''It is still to be seen how all of that works out,'' tight end Greg Olsen said of the impact of Benjamin's return to the starting lineup. ''One of our greatest strengths as an offense last year was the versatility and the ability of that wide receiver group to just play a role. That was a catalyst for our season developing the way it did.''

Olsen, who led the team in receptions and yards receiving last season en route to his second Pro Bowl, said he sees the Benjamin's return as a huge plus - and not only because of his talent.

He said Benjamin's unselfish nature will allow him to fit back into the lineup easily.

''That is always the million dollar problem - you can have a lot of good players but not everybody is not necessarily willing to accept where they fit into the team aspect of offense,'' Olsen said. ''But Kelvin is the rare guy who can be a No. 1 talent, but still understands how he fits into the big picture. Anytime you can more add guys like that to a team, you can't help but improve.''

Benjamin has no pretenses about returning to be the team's dominant No. 1 receiver.

''Hey, I just want to come in and be a part of it,'' Benjamin said Tuesday at OTAs.

Benjamin began running and cutting at full speed last week, although he still hasn't been cleared to participate in team drills. That won't come until training camp in late July.

Still, he said the knee feels strong, which is why he's chose not to wear a knee brace.

''I try not to baby it. I try to go hard,'' Benjamin said. ''. ... I'm going full speed. You can't really hold back. If it gives out, it gives out. I trust in the rehab we did and I feel comfortable about it.''

Benjamin said if he wore the knee brace it might become ''a mind thing.''

Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't have a problem with Benjamin practicing without the brace, even though the wide receiver said doctors have advised him to wear one during OTAs.

''That is just for right now where he isn't working against anybody,'' Rivera said. ''He's developing that confidence that you are going to need when he's working against somebody and he doesn't have the brace on.''

Rivera said he can't wait to add a healthy Benjamin to the team's already versatile offense.

''It's going to be exciting, it really is,'' Rivera said. ''I think we have some potential to be better, I really do. I think we can be better all of the way across the board as a football team. But talking about isn't going to help you, you have to go out and do it.''

Benjamin said his focus now is on his conditioning, which he said needs to improve significantly. He stayed after and ran sprints with some of the other wide receivers, keeping up with the leaders.

''We had a tremendous season last year and having me back will only be good,'' Benjamin said. ''We have to keep building and keep pushing from here.''


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