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Panthers, Benjamin will bounce back


SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Moments after star receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down Wednesday with what we now know to be a season-ending knee injury, fellow receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., found a moment to offer his fallen teammate some support.

"I talked to him," Ginn said. "Told him to keep his head up."

The simple but significant message was meant for a teammate in distress, but now it applies to the Panthers' remaining receivers, to the rest of the players and coaches, and even to Panthers fans for that matter.

Keep your head up.

Make no bones about it, this is a big blow to Carolina's cause, a punch to the gut that naturally takes some air out of the optimism surrounding the season.

But before the injury, when fans daydreamed about what the Panthers could accomplish in 2015, Benjamin surely wasn't the only vision dancing through their heads.

Specifically in the wide receiver room, this team is more equipped to deal with such a loss than some other Panthers teams of the recent past. And besides, this team's recipe for success extends beyond its growing group of pass catchers.

"Not having your No. 1 guy can hurt you, but I believe we have the guys behind him that can step up and do whatever we need to do to fill the void," Ginn said. "This is the NFL. You're in a league where if a man goes down, a man has got to step up."

Ginn went onto say the Panthers are "pretty loaded all around." One of the major themes of training camp has been the increased depth of talent at receiver and the increased competition to even make the 53-man roster. That depth certainly will be tested with Benjamin gone near the end of camp after Stephen Hill was lost to a season-ending knee injury at the beginning of camp.

Cornerback Josh Norman knows a thing or two about receivers that can give defensive backs trouble, and Benjamin no doubt was at the top of Carolina's list of playmakers. But with the return of Ginn after one season away and the addition of a receiver with the physical potential of Benjamin – second-round draft choice Devin Funchess – a considerable challenge for opposing corners remains.

"Kelvin is a No. 1 go-to guy on the offense. Losing a guy like that on any team, it's going to be big," Norman said. "But we've got formidable wide receivers in our group. Funchess is coming into his own, and he's learning from veteran guys.

"Then you've got (Jerricho) Cotchery, who is a possession guy all the way and a leader. You've got Philly Brown, who is opening the field as well just like Ted Ginn, who is probably just as fast. You have guys that can make some plays."

Last year, when a strong finish to the season allowed the Panthers to squeeze into the playoffs, the team ranked 19th in the NFL in passing offense. Benjamin was a big part of the success as the first rookie in franchise history to top 1,000 receiving yards, but the run game and the defense set the pace down the stretch.

In 2013, before Benjamin, the Panthers powered into the playoffs with a 12-4 record. They finished the season 29th in passing offense.

Benjamin was a big reason for this season's high hopes, but don't forget that he wasn't the only reason. A healthy Cam Newton at the helm of the offense and a stable starting five along the offensive front are elements the Panthers have this August that they didn't have a year ago. And of course there's the defense, a unit that has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL three years running.

In a league where every inch is earned, every team wants to have its best 11 players on the field at all times. But in a game where physicality plays a major role in earning those inches, injuries play a big part.

What happened to Benjamin is unfortunate, but be it him or somebody else, it was inevitable. The months to come will be difficult ones for Benjamin, but it's not inevitable that the Panthers will endure months of misery as well.

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