As an Athlete
We know that Benjamin is a mountain of a man, measuring at 6’5” and 240 pounds at his 2014 combine. He boasted huge, 10 1/4" hands and long, 34 7/8" arms, sporting a catch radius like few prospects in recent memory. These are all sexy figures in the draftnik community, of course, but they don’t paint much of a picture of a prospect’s athleticism. Speed testing (dashes, like the 40-yard) and explosion testing (vertical and broad jumps) are iffy measures at best when applied on their own. Therefore, I always make it a point to evaluate a prospect’s general explosiveness – the correlation of his timed speed and jumping ability – to develop an athletic profile.
Since great receivers come in different shapes and sizes, of course, we have to adjust those numbers for height and weight. I can’t in good conscience compare Benjamin’s speed or height to Corey Coleman’s. So, to examine just how athletic Benjamin tested, I compared his combine workouts to the 12 other wideouts since 1999 who met the following criteria:
- Measured at 6’3” or above
- Weighed in at 230 pounds or above
- Participated in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, and broad jump at his combine
What a sorry cohort of comparisons. Only half of the 12 prospects were even drafted, and only four went in the first three rounds. The jury remains out on two of those (Green-Beckham and Funchess) after shaky yet promising rookie seasons, and Greg Little was an objectively awful receiver. Benjamin is actually the only real NFL success story of the bunch.
To be fair, it’s important to note that a few eventual NFL stars didn’t quite make our cut. Brandon Marshall weighed in at 229, while Calvin Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Plaxico Burress and Mike Evans skipped one or more required drills at the combine. Still, all but Burress either crushed Benjamin’s mediocre-at-best marks at their respective pro days or almost certainly would. They’re not comparable athletes.
All told, it looks as though Benjamin’s best athletic parallels are oversized WR/TE hybrid types. That tells us little, as we’re quite sure Benjamin is a far better player than the likes of Anthony Mix. But it also tells us that imposing size in and of itself isn’t much of an indicator for NFL success. And sadly, that’s Benjamin’s only real calling card as an athlete.
As a Producer
You could awaken from a coma, review the 2014 NFL season, and make the snap judgment that Benjamin’s rookie year was one for the ages. He dominated his team’s passing game, claiming a thick 26.6% of Carolina targets, and he came a touchdown short of being just the fifth 1,000-yard, 10-TD rookie in NFL history. He finished as the season’s PPR WR15, with six top-12 weeks over the first 16 (and a top-four). From a volume standpoint, Benjamin easily exceeded even his first-round expectations, turning in one of the most prolific rookie seasons in history.
But looking deeper, there wasn’t much efficiency to be found – nor was there strong indication that it was a particularly repeatable season. Benjamin’s 1,008 yards were the 12th-most ever for a rookie, but his 6.95 yards per target sits at 157th (min. 30 targets). His shaky 50.3% catch rate was heavily to blame, and some of that can be excused; Cam Newton has never been a high-percentage passer. But for whatever reason, the two made for a fairly messy connection in 2014, while Newton has been far more efficient when throwing to just about every other wideout over that span.
|CAR Wide Receivers 2014-15 (min. 10 tar)|
That's been especially true in the red zone. Despite a strong rookie showing on balls in the air – Matt Harmon gave him a studly 71.1% contested catch rate in 2014 – Benjamin was seriously underwhelming near the goal line. Of his 15 red zone targets, he caught just four (26.7%), by far the worst among all NFL wideouts at that volume. And we couldn’t blame the quarterbacking: Panthers QBs completed 60.5% of their red zone throws to everyone else that year.
|CAR WR/TE 2014-15 (min. 4 RZ tar)|
|Player||RZ Tg||RZ TD||RZ TD%|
Now, none of this signals some definitive end to the Benjamin train. He’s played exactly one NFL season, and it’s fair to expect his on-field play to improve to some degree going forward. So we should actually be expecting an efficiency boost from Benjamin – which, when added to the playmaking ability he showed as a rookie, would be a true golden ticket. But we’re a year removed, and NFL personnel now moves on an ultra-fast track, so there’s a nasty fly in that ointment.
Simply put, there’s little chance Benjamin sees a repeat of his rookie volume. And for a guy whose only NFL achievements are entirely volume-based, that’s a huge issue.
Most likely, Benjamin will remain woven deeply into the gameplan, but viewed differently than he was as a rookie. In 2014, with little more than Greg Olsen and end-of-the-line slot men to contend with, Benjamin took on a dominant chunk of Carolina’s passing game. But this year, he’ll fight for attention with new WR talent. Second-year man Funchess came on strong down the stretch – over three late-season starts, he caught 13 passes for 203 yards and two scores. A strikingly similar prospect to Benjamin, Funchess saw fairly heavy red zone usage late in the season and poses strong competition there. And we can’t undervalue Ted Ginn’s role in the offense. Ginn was a Cardinal in 2014, but spent 2013 and 2015 in Carolina, where he’s enjoyed an underrated connection with Newton. He drew 165 targets over those two seasons – 16.8% of the team’s attention – and managed a healthy 7.85 yards per target. Ginn also scored 15 touchdowns, posing even more of a hurdle to Benjamin’s fantasy rebound.
And Olsen, of course, remains firmly in the picture. During Benjamin’s rookie explosion, Olsen still drew 22.6% of team targets and outcaught Benjamin 84-73. Considering his efficiency and clear dominion over the team’s current options (24.7% last year), Olsen seems less likely to lose his receiving share to those young targets. They’ll cut into Benjamin’s pie instead.
Simply put, Benjamin is no longer the unquestioned top weapon down the field. He’ll almost certainly pace Panthers WRs in volume, but if he has to fight with two new options to win attention as a playmaker, then he’s a murky fantasy prospect at best. And considering he’s never been particularly consistent or productive anywhere else, in a run-oriented offense like this one, we have to seriously question his true volume floor.
Perhaps most crucially, though, is the general shape of the Panthers as a team. In 2014, Carolina went 7-8-1, losing in six blowouts along the way. They threw 74 passes when down by 11+ points in fourth quarters, 11th-most in the league. As a result, Benjamin racked up 18% of his receptions, 19% of his yardage, five of his nine touchdowns, and 27% of his PPR fantasy points in those situations. All of those numbers were among the most imbalanced league-wide. But while Benjamin was hurt last year, the team became a juggernaut, and garbage-time passing is largely a thing of the past in Charlotte. The 15-1 Panthers threw zero such passes in 2015, and only eight when leading in that scenario. Benjamin will likely need to make his hay in neutral- and positive-script games – the team threw 76% of its passes last year while tied or leading.
- A mammoth receiver in both height and build, with a supreme catch radius and the ability to land contested catches
- Carries the profile of a dynamic (if inconsistent) downfield playmaker
- Mostly dominated Carolina’s passing game in his only season – a passing game that’s only become more prolific and efficient since then
- An exceptionally unpolished down-to-down target; drops and attention to non-leaping details may always be major issues
- Forced to battle a long-proven Olsen and several fresh faces to keep a stranglehold on the offense
- Typical Panthers game flow has altered majorly since he last played, and he was relatively unproductive in the new common scripts
- Will enter the 2016 season less than 12 months removed from ACL surgery
As I mentioned a moment ago, we’re now a season removed from Benjamin’s debut, and the Panthers went 17-2 in the interim. Newton just posted his best NFL season by a mile, with an MVP and a Super Bowl appearance, while throwing to other weapons in a completely different game script. Which approach seems more likely for 2016? A return to Benjamin dominating (and often bogging down) a ho-hum offense, or a continuation of 2015’s mega-successful attack? How likely are the Panthers to abandon that for the sake of an inconsistent, inefficient Benjamin returning from injury?
As always, I’m banking on some mixture of the two. Benjamin’s talents, while largely exaggerated, are probably still the strongest on the depth chart, and he’ll be fed the ball plenty. But with his massive volume scaling back and significantly less opportunity on the horizon, Benjamin’s top-20 WR hopes will rest on his efficiency and versatility – his demonstrated weak points. He projects as my WR30, and I can’t recommend him anywhere near his third-round ADP. There’s too much similar upside in that range, paired with fewer serious red flags and more stable floors.
J.J. Zachariason of numberFire also finds Benjamin appealing, but overvalued:
“According to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Benjamin's being selected at WR16, 10 spots ahead of our projections and the exact spot he finished during his rookie campaign. With Cam Newton due for some touchdown regression, the competition, and the fact that the Panthers' offense probably won't be as pass-happy as it was in 2014, I don't get it. I don't get it at all.”
Though WR guru Matt Harmon isn’t entirely on board with the criticism:
“I say this not to sound snobbish, but when you watch receivers on a route-to-route basis as intently as I do, conclusions based on players based on their yards/fantasy points per target rate seems incredibly hollow, and begging to invite a ton of noise. No one better exemplifies that than Kelvin Benjamin. His rookie year ‘inefficiency’ is a mix of some of his own real and clear flaws, playing with the 2014 iteration of Cam Newton, the construction of that offense and the role the team asked Benjamin to play. Much has changed since then, especially Newton’s elevation as a consistent passer. One thing has not changed, however, and that is the clear view held by the Panthers that Kelvin Benjamin is their longterm No. 1 wide receiver.”
 I’m rarely interested in a prospect’s pro day performance. In fact, when I’m named Chief Executive Officer of fantasy football, I’ll ban all discussion of their results from all open forums.
 No, pro days still don’t matter much at all – but these guys destroyed Benjamin’s jump numbers at theirs. I’d bet my life their combine marks would’ve been similar enough to still do it.
 Fellow rookies Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. became the third and fourth that very year.
 The league average was 54.2%, more than double Benjamin’s rate. Yuck.
 Of course, he caught the ball and scored in the red zone at much better rates than did Benjamin as a rookie.