- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith who?
Getting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick of Thursday's NFL draft begins the healing process for a Carolina Panthers' fan base mourning the release of its all-time leading receiver.
It also is the beginning of redemption for general manager Dave Gettleman, chastised when he let Smith go in March and subsequently allowed the team's next three wide receivers to sign with other organizations as free agents.
"I'm sure Cam is not mad at me now," Gettleman said joking in reference to quarterback Cam Newton.
No, Newton wasn't upset with Gettleman for letting his entire wide receiving corps go. At least he didn't tell Gettleman that. But Newton has to be happy to have a big target like Benjamin.
"You can't coach 6-5, 240," Gettleman said repeatedly during his post-first-round news conference. "He has a lot of upside."
Benjamin has so much upside that he could become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for a team that doesn't have one, and according to head coach Ron Rivera doesn't really need one.
Gettleman knew this was a good year for wide receivers when he let Smith & Co. go. He didn't know how many of those receivers would grade out to be first-rounders, but he had no doubts about Benjamin after having him in for a workout.
Gettleman also had a gut feeling that Benjamin would be there at No. 28 even though many mock drafts didn't.
When he was, it didn't take Gettleman long to make the pick -- just as it didn't take him long a year ago to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei at No. 14.
"He was the highest-rated guy on our board," Gettleman said of Benjamin. "And again, like last year, value. We got fortunate."
Many of the so-called draft experts had Benjamin as a potential second-round pick, perhaps a project because he had only one productive season at FSU.
But that production (54 catches for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns) was enough to sell the Panthers. Gettleman in particularly was impressed with what Benjamin did in the final four games, catching 21 passes for an average of 21.3 yards per catch with eight touchdowns.
One of those touchdowns was the BCS title-winner over Auburn, the team Newton led to the national championship at the end of the 2010 season, which is sure to come up in conversation.
But it wasn't so much that Benjamin caught the game-winner. It's that he caught it when everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be the target.
The Panthers needed to replace a clutch player in Smith. In Benjamin, they got clutch.
"He said he didn't want to let that quarterback down," Rivera said. "I love that confidence."
Unlike the flamboyant Smith's, it is a quiet confidence. Benjamin isn't an in-your-face player. He is humble, so much so that he opted to stay in Florida with his parents for the draft instead of going to Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
That was something else that made him attractive to Carolina, which is trying to build an organization around teamwork and not egos. Smith, in case you never noticed, had a big ego.
"He's a different young man," Rivera said of Benjamin. "He's been very humble with us through this process. All the coaches said that."
Benjamin also is a big Newton fan.
"That's my favorite man," he said by phone. "I always dreamed of coming there and playing with Cam, coming and contributing to the organization."
Benjamin will give the Panthers more than a threat at receiver. He'll provide a big blocker who can open room for Newton and the Carolina backs down field.
He likes to block. He wants to block.
His presence also won't allow teams to stack eight in the box to stop the run, which will enable the Panthers to do more with its bread-and-butter game.
This was a win for a Carolina team that has done nothing but lose in the wide receiver department since it lost to San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs.
This was the true beginning of the post-Smith era.
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