SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins wrapped up a productive, injury-free joint practice on Thursday — a welcomed change considering both teams lost starters to season-ending knee injuries the day before.
The Panthers began adapting to the difficult notion they’ll be without Kelvin Benjamin, their top playmaker in the passing game, leaving them without a clear No. 1 receiver. The Dolphins lost safety Louis Delmas, their emotional leader in the secondary, when he tore his right ACL just minutes after Benjamin left on a cart with a torn left ACL on Wednesday.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he addressed Benjamin’s injury at a team meeting on Wednesday night, telling players not to lose faith in the season.
“We talked about the opportunity it created,” Rivera said. “We don’t want these things to happen, but when they do, somebody has to step up and take advantage of it. It’s not about us being one player. It’s about us being a team.”
Still, it’s never easy replacing a player like Benjamin.
He caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns last year as a rookie and only appeared to be getting better this summer.
“Kelvin is a No. 1 go-to guy on the offense,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said. “Losing a guy like that on any team, it’s going to be big. But we’ve got formidable wide receivers in our group.”
The Panthers are hoping rookie second-round draft pick Devin Funchess might be able to step up and take on Benjamin’s role as the “lead dog.”
When the 6-foot-5, 245 pound Benjamin arrived at training camp last summer it was clear he was going to be a difference maker.
Funchess hasn’t shown that ability just yet. And it doesn’t help that he sat out practice Thursday with a hamstring and won’t play in Saturday night’s preseason game against the Dolphins.
“He and Kelvin are different type players,” Rivera said of the 6-foot-4, 228-pound Funchess. “Kelvin is a big, stout, physical guy, where Funchess uses his size to position himself. He’ll have to step it up and learn that style and technique of play.”
Rivera said he doesn’t think the Panthers need to sign a free agent to replace Benjamin at this point, but wouldn’t rule it out at a later date.
He said the next three weeks will be spent evaluating the team’s group of receivers. Right now there are no clear cut starters at wide receivers with Funchess, Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn Jr. all in the mix.
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin called Delmas’ injury “unfortunate” and is hoping Michael Thomas or Walt Aikens will step up and fill that starting role. He said a lot will be determined by how they perform in the rest of the preseason, including Saturday night against Carolina.
“Can they get a guy down in space? Can they tackle a guy when it’s third-and-8 and the guy catches a 5-yard pass? Those type of things,” Philbin said. “We need to see them compete and make plays.”
Aside from the injuries, coaches and players alike felt like the two days of joint practices were productive.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh called it a good measuring stick for the Dolphins, and felt like the defensive line made solid progress.
“We were re-setting the line of scrimmage in their backfield in a handful of the plays, so I’m excited about it,” Suh said. “We got a lot of growth at the end of the day to continue to come together and gel as a group. I’m excited. I think we did, we came out here and accomplished some good things.”
Suh even got a chance between plays to talk with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who came under fire last year for calling the fiery defensive tackle “Donkey Kong Suh” several times during a press conference.
“Did I expect the chatter? No, (Newton) just came up to me, so it was a good conversation and left it at that,” Suh said.
Philbin said the practice tempo was the right pace.
“We practiced fast,” Philbin said. “We got a lot accomplished.”