Kelvin Benjamin Injury Crushing Blow for Panthers' Playoff Hopes

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 19, 2015

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In 2014, the Carolina Panthers became the first team in NFL history to win the NFC South two years running. Yes, it was with a 7-8-1 record, but two in a row is two in a row.

Well, on Wednesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, a three-peat went out the window when the Panthers were hit with devastating injury news at the position they can least afford it.

As ESPN.com's David Newton reported, second-year wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was carted off the practice field Wednesday after crumpling to the ground after planting his left leg. 

Head coach Ron Rivera initially tried his best to downplay the injury, busting out every football cliche he could get his hands on, according to Newton:

He just went to plant and make a swim move, and without any contact just went down. It's unfortunate. It's one of those things that could have happened in any drill. It's not going to change the complexion of what we want to do or how we're going to do it. It's just going to change who's going to do it.

Well, Rivera was right on at least one point—someone else is going to have to do it for the Carolina Panthers in 2015.

That's because as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported later in the day, Benjamin tore his ACL:

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In a statement, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said (via Chris Wesseling of NFL.com), "Obviously, we feel awful for Kelvin. He's worked tremendously hard to put himself in a position to have a strong year. We're confident he will attack his surgery and rehab with the same determination he has met all challenges before."

Gettleman doesn't just feel awful for Benjamin. He feels bad for the entire Panthers organization.

Because this is a crushing blow for a Panthers team with playoff aspirations.

As Robert Klemko of the MMQB pointed out, Benjamin's importance to the team can't be overstated:

It isn't just that Benjamin was the team's leading wide receiver in 2014, hauling in 73 passes for 1,008 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns.

It's that he is effectively the team's only wide receiver.

Veteran Jerricho Cotchery insisted to Newton last week that he still has something to offer the team despite his rising age (33) and declining skills:

I know I can help this team out a lot. That’s what I came here for, to help this team win a championship. That’s what I look forward to doing. But in the meantime, you want to make sure you’re helping the guys behind you, not withholding any advice or anything that can help them be better.

However, despite finishing second among Panthers wideouts in both catches and yardage last year, there was talk swirling around Cotchery that he was a candidate for release, as Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer suggested.

Yes, the Panthers drafted Michigan's Devin Funchess with a second-round pick in 2015. But not only is Funchess trying to make the switch from tight end to wide receiver, but as Rivera told reporters, Funchess also pulled up lame Wednesday:

Unfortunately he tweaked his hamstring a little bit later on in practice, so he didn’t get to finish up, but hopefully we’ll get him back out there in the next few days. He’s done a nice job. He really has. He and Kelvin are different type players. Kelvin is a big, stout, physical guy where Funchess uses his size to position himself, and he’ll have to step it up and learn that style and technique of play.

Besides, Funchess was brought in to complement Benjamin, not replace him.

Tight end Greg Olsen remains, thank heavens. But besides Olsen? Well, let's see. Corey Brown. Ted Ginn. Brenton Bersin. Jarrett Boykin.

Any of those names do anything for you?

Well, at least the Panthers can lean on the ground game. Running back Jonathan Stewart showed amazing durability early in his NFL career, and there's plenty of depth behind him at tailback. Whew. Thought we had a problem there.

Except that Stewart has missed time in four of the past five seasons, and there isn't much on the depth chart behind him.

Normally, I'm not the Chicken Little type. NFL rosters are 53 men deep for a reason. Next man up and all that.

But if you looked at the Carolina Panthers as a whole and tried to pick out the one player the team just couldn't afford to lose—OK, it would be Cam Newton. Quarterbacks. Whatever.

Next, most folks would likely choose linebacker Luke Kuechly. As great as he is, I would disagree. The team has some depth at linebacker and a steady veteran in Thomas Davis to hold down the fort.

At wide receiver, behind Benjamin, there's a declining veteran whose roster spot was in jeopardy in Cotchery. There's an unproven (and injured) rookie in Funchess.

And then a whole lot of trouble.

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPSharks.