CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton has a new best friend — and a new favorite target.
Newton has forged a close relationship on and off the field with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ first-round draft pick from Florida State.
Together the duo has been lighting it up in practice, connecting regularly on crossing routes and deep balls. When they’re not playing pitch and catch, they’ve been practically inseparable, even spending time together recently boating on Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta.
Newton said from the moment he first talked to Benjamin “there was a connection.”
It all started a few hours after the Panthers selected Benjamin with the 28th pick.
Benjamin, who wore No. 1 at Florida State, called Newton and teased the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback about wanting to wear No. 1 for the Panthers — the same number Newton wore the previous three seasons in Carolina.
Newton said he “didn’t know Benjamin from Ronald McDonald” at the time and wasn’t sure what to make of the kid.
“He tells me, ‘Man, the league be tripping. They don’t let receivers get single-digit numbers,’ ” Newton said. “I said, ‘Well, you’ve got two problems, then. First, you’ve got the league to worry about to get No. 1 — and (then) you’ve got me to worry about.’”
Benjamin laughs about it now.
“Yeah, I asked him for No. 1 and he was like, ‘No!,” Benjamin said. “But it was a little joke just to break the ice.”
The ice is plenty broken.
It’s rare these days when you don’t see Newton and Benjamin together. They stretch together. They watch drills in practice together. They eat lunch together.
There’s a connection on the field, too.
Newton always seems to be looking for Benjamin, perhaps because he’s so hard to miss. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds Benjamin is the only receiver on Carolina’s roster who comes close to matching Newton’s chiseled 6-foot-5, 245-pound physique.
“They’re kind of the same guy off the field — both like to joke around and are very confident in what they do,” said backup quarterback Derek Anderson.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera describes the relationship as a “big brother, little brother thing.”
Newton said he’s trying to teach Benjamin the NFL ropes.
“I’m like, dude, what I went through, I’m just going to share with you. If you take it, good. If not, still good. Because at the end of the day I’m your quarterback. At the end of the day, I’m your homeboy,’ ” Newton said.
Newton said the two are relentlessly pushing each other — as two brothers often do.
He’s quick to poke at Benjamin when he misses a catch or doesn’t run a route correctly. And Benjamin, who at 24 years old is more mature than most rookies, isn’t shy about giving it right back when Newton throws a pick.
“We respect each other enough to be able kick it with each other, but also push each other to be great,” Newton said.
“We’ve got that unique relationship that we hold each other to a standard.”
When asked why the two have bonded so quickly, Benjamin replied, “I think the competitive edge in both of us wanting to win.”
Both know what it’s like to win.
Newton led Auburn to a national title in 2011. Benjamin caught the winning touchdown last season helping Florida State top the Tigers in the BCS championship — something that still irks Newton.
“I’ve only got one beef with Benji, and he knows it,” Newton said with a laugh. “I have to remind him, every single thing that he won in college I won, too.”
They’ll get their first chance to play together Sunday night when the Panthers host Kansas City. Newton was held out of the first game while resting his ankle.
Benjamin replaces Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver who was released this past offseason.
Smith, a 13-year NFL veteran with a sometimes surly and intense personality, called out Newton in the media in 2012 saying the quarterback needed to stop sulking and become a better leader.
Newton’s relationship with Benjamin so far seems markedly different — and one Rivera said could be beneficial to both players’ careers.
“They know as they go forward they can be together in Charlotte for 10, 11 or 12 years, hopefully,” Rivera said.