- Nobody has skill set like him in Panthers offense: Over the two seasons Kelvin Benjamin has completed as a pro – 2015 and 2017 – he has comfortably led the Panthers wide receivers in targets and red zone targets, and it doesn’t take a genius to see why. His big-bodied frame can box out defensive backs easily, giving his quarterback a large margin of error. Even as Carolina’s offense shifts to more ‘small ball’ tactics, no passing game threat has the skills of Benjamin.
- Newton’s cradle of trust: Benjamin and the entire offense suffered as Cam Newton struggled down the stretch last season, but there is no doubting the mind meld these two have. The scattershot accuracy that has become a pillar of Newton’s game is offset by the big receiver’s ability to corral wayward passes and make heaves downfield look like inspired plays.
- Playing with point to prove: Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was unforgiving in his assessment of Benjamin’s weight this offseason, calling out the receiver for the extra pounds he was carrying. This criticism appears to have lit a fire under Benjamin, who has vowed to be in the best shape of his life. The Panthers may have picked up his 2018 fifth-year option, but make no mistake: Benjamin is playing for his future this year.
- Weight and trust issues: Despite Benjamin’s proclamations about his fitness levels, come the start of the season we may see a different story. Could Rivera and the coaching staff have a nagging doubt in the back of their minds about Benjamin’s stamina in fast-paced games? Has the trust reached a point of no return? All that remains to be seen, but the seed has been planted.
- One-dimensional threat in multi-faceted offense? While his skill set demands a peppering of targets in high leverage situations, it is possible the Panthers move away from the types of plays that Benjamin excels at – downfield routes like skinny posts, go routes and deep digs – and instead focuses on quicker, shorter passes.
- Too many mouths to feed: And all of the above leads to the big question – do the Panthers have too many mouths to feed? The Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel factors can’t be ignored, while Greg Olsen will still demand a big chunk of attention and targets. Devin Funchess could be the closest thing to Benjamin in this offense; could he start to nudge Benjamin aside?
ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMIN
As much as we often focus on external factors that affect a player’s stock – quarterback play, offensive line play, quality of defenses – ultimately what it comes down to is the player himself. There is an inherent trust factor that we subconsciously register with every player we draft; in the moment of truth before you click ‘Draft’, we have all had last-minute misgivings about possibly making a drastic error.
Perhaps Kelvin Benjamin is the perfect 2017 poster body for such a quandary; having missed one of his three seasons through injury, we only have two full seasons to analyse what he can bring to the table – and one of those was his steady but unspectacular rookie campaign.
The question hits us dead on the nose with Benjamin every time we go through his game with a fine tooth comb: do we trust him?
The Panthers coaching staff certainly has reason to be concerned, and only Benjamin showing up in tip-top shape for training camp will allay those fears. The steady drumbeat this offseason has been Benjamin’s weight which, according to Ron Rivera, was not up to scratch during OTAs and minicamps. Rivera knows how valuable Benjamin is to this offense.
That said, the team picked up Benjamin’s fifth-year option in what can only be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the receiver’s ability to up his game. Benjamin himself will be under no illusions that a strong 2017 season will be the quickest way to secure a second contract with the Panthers. The ball is firmly in Benjamin’s court.
It’s all about the Benjamin, so to speak.
The behemoth receiver has been the target leader, unsurprisingly, among Panthers wide receivers in his two seasons of play, with 145 in 2014 and 118 this past season. The real bugaboo of his game, however, hasn’t been the number of targets; rather, it has been his inability to convert on them.
It would be unfair to place all the blame for Carolina’s offensive collapse in 2016 on Cam Newton’s injuries and a below average offensive line. The receiving corps – and Benjamin specifically – must hold up their hands (no pun intended) and take the blame for poor route running and issues with separation. A newly designed offense may mitigate some of those woes, but Benjamin’s game as a between-the-numbers threat will rely on him polishing up his skills at the break point in routes.
If we take a look at the Panthers offense holistically, it is clear that Greg Olsen will remain a focus, but Benjamin figures to be the apple of Newton’s eye on crucial third down plays and downfield 50-50 balls. Benjamin should see a boost in targets from the paltry total of 2016 – but he will need to improve on his roughly 50% catch rate.
AFTERTHOUGHT IN NEW AGE OFFENSE?
In case you have been sleeping on the Panthers this offseason, they are installing a revamped offense which will focus on shorter, quicker passes and limit the exposure of Newton to big hits. Rivera’s ambition is to have Newton play for 10 more years; to do that, a review of their offensive strategy was a sensible first step.
However, with any change to philosophy there will be a bit of push and pull with the chess pieces on the board. A greater emphasis on shorter passes will by design cap the number of downfield opportunities for Benjamin to thrive. Newton has built his reputation on chunk plays, but that was all part of the offensive scheme the team employed. What is Newton more likely to do, take the risky chunk play to Benjamin in a 50-50 situation or dump it off to a speed demon like Christian McCaffrey or Curtis Samuel? I would lean towards the latter, especially when he realises what potent weapons they can be.
All this leaves Benjamin on an island – and possibly frustrated. The game scripts will inevitably call on the offense to look downfield at times, but with conditioning already a big question mark and a number of shiny new toys in the passing game, one has to wonder where an old school receiver like him fits in.
Current ADP as of the time of writing has the polarizing Benjamin coming off the board at WR29 (consensus ranking), a fair assessment considering the blotches on his resume. You can certainly make a reasoned argument either way on the receiver’s prospects, but it will take a leap of faith to see him turning into a bona fide WR1 this season. The Panthers’ investment in younger offensive weapons is clearly a shot across the bow to Benjamin and his fellow receivers. If Benjamin can show up in shape to camp and remain injury-free, a strong WR2 season would be his ceiling. A return to his problems of the past and we could see another forgettable campaign.
CBS Sports highlights Benjamin’s low catch rate and wonders if his conditioning could be his undoing:
The former first-round receiver started and ended last season strong, totaling 355 yards and five touchdowns in his first two games and last two games. In between, Benjamin struggled with his conditioning and was exposed as a limited route-runner, collecting 40 balls for 586 yards and two touchdowns between Weeks 3 and 15.
Mike Tagliere of FantasyPros warns fantasy owners not to be taken in by the fact Benjamin has finished top-20 in his two seasons of play:
It's hard to feel confident in him, knowing that he's had weight issues for the second-straight off-season. The additions of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will likely eat up some of the shorter targets that used to go to him.
Meanwhile, Rotoworld’s Evan Silva paints a more positive picture:
While Benjamin’s red flags are undeniably concerning, it is also true that Benjamin has posted PPR WR16 and WR27 finishes in his two full seasons, is a proven touchdown scorer with big weekly upside, and remains the Panthers’ unchallenged No. 1 wide receiver.