How Much of an Impact Will Kelvin Benjamin Really Have on the Carolina Panthers Offense?
Cam Newton was the overwhelming winner of the MVP in 2015. It was a deserved accolade for a quarterback who performed phenomenally well throughout the whole season.
Though he ultimately won the award, many felt that Newton wasn’t worthy of being in the discussion for most of the year.
Andrew Perloff of Sports Illustrated said that Newton wasn’t a candidate because of his mediocre output, “He ranks 27th among starters with an 81.4 passer rating and 24th in ESPN’s QBR; his 53.4 completion percentage is lowest among regular starters and he’s tied for 6th in the NFL with nine interceptions.”
The general gist of complaints about Newton being the MVP revolved around his statistical output or the schedule he faced. Those factors typically hold a prominent place in these discussions, but they shouldn’t. Newton eventually won the award because his numbers caught up to his play over the second half of the season. Nothing for Newton changed, his wide receivers just stopped dropping his precise passes.
Even with the improvement over the second half of the season, Newton finished the year with the second most failed receptions in the league, just one behind Aaron Rodgers, the second-most touchdowns, seven, and the most lost yards(not including YAC), 836.
Newton’s production didn’t accurately reflect his play because of the limitations of his receivers. Yet, the Panthers didn’t add a single receiver to their roster during the offseason. Instead they are expecting Devin Funchess to continue to develop and for Kelvin Benjamin to improve on Ted Ginn as the team’s leading wide receiver.
Benjamin showed promise as a rookie. He caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns during his rookie season. The former FSU receiver put up those numbers on an abnormal number of targets though. His production came in a similar way to Ted Ginn’s where his impact was felt as much in the plays that he didn’t make as in the plays he did make.
|Kelvin Benjamin – 2014||Ted Ginn – 2015|
The above chart was compiled by tracking Benjamin’s targets during his rookie season and Ginn’s during last season. While it’s widely accepted that Ginn has major issues catching the ball, he actually had a slightly higher success rate than Benjamin. For the season as a whole, Benjamin averaged 13.3 yards per attempt and caught a touchdown once every 7.6 receptions. Ginn averaged 17.3 yards per attempt and caught a touchdown every five attempts.
Ginn and Benjamin have different skill sets, Ginn’s allows him to create big plays more easily whereas Benjamin offers more over the middle of the field and against tighter coverages.
Yet, while being different in how they appear on the field and where they win, they are ultimately very similar receivers because of their inconsistencies. Ginn’s value to the Panthers last season came in his ability to create big plays. So long as he can continue to find the endzone at the rate that he did and consistently create big plays the way he did last year, his drops will have less of an impact as they should. They’ll still be a major problem but one the Panthers will feel like they can live with.
Benjamin needs to offer similar value to the offense. He needs to create big plays with his size, particularly by scoring touchdowns and on third downs because he doesn’t create separation as easily as Ginn does.
The Panthers are obviously hoping that Benjamin will be an upgrade over Ginn, but during his rookie season he was just as unreliable. He will need to improve his technique and consistency at the catch point to live up to expectations. While receivers can improve their consistency at the catch point, the way in which Benjamin failed as a rookie is very concerning. It wasn’t just a technique or concentration issue,
Benjamin had all kinds of failures at the catch point during his rookie season. The most concerning ones came when he failed to properly track the ball through the air. His positioning against defensive backs was an issue at times, but there was no more glaring example of his problems than this play against Desmond Trufant of the Atlanta Falcons. Trufant was overly aggressive on the play, anticipating an underneath route and looking to jump it. This let Benjamin run free behind him.
Newton’s pass doesn’t lead Benjamin downfield, so it’s not perfect, but he doesn’t have to reach back either. This should be a comfortable catch into his mid section.
Often these plays occur because the receiver takes his eye off the ball as it arrives. He is too focused on what he is going to do after catching the ball and just assumes that he will catch it cleanly. Benjamin didn’t take his eye off the ball, instead he watched it into his stomach and just misjudged where it was going to arrive. This is more concerning moving forward than if Benjamin had taken his eye of the ball because that would be a concentration issue that could be emphasized by the coaching staff.
Tracking the ball and body-catching are tied to one another. You can be a successful body catcher in the NFL, but you have to be an expert at adjusting to the ball when it arrives. You need to not only have the strength to fend off defenders and hold onto the ball, you need to understand how to approach situations to protect the ball from defenders in tight coverage. Benjamin won’t consistently run away from defenders so he has to excel in contested catch situations to thrive.
He can obviously make big plays and impressive adjustments against tight coverage, but the ability alone isn’t valuable. The ratio of your success against your failures determines how valuable a player you are.
Unfortunately for Benjamin during his rookie season he had way too many plays that looked like the above failure against the Chicago Bears. Benjamin got good positioning down the seam and Newton made a perfect play to lead him away from the defender. Benjamin could have body caught this ball if he worked through it, but he didn’t. He waited on the ball to come to him and tried to catch it into his body high up where the defender could punch it out of his grasp.
This is the type of play that highlights how Benjamin prioritizes his comfort at the catch point over the result of the play. He doesn’t carry out the action that gives him the best chance of winning the ball but rather the action that is easiest for him to execute.
While it’s possible for Benjamin to develop after his rookie season, these are worrying signs for an older rookie who is coming off a torn ACL. Expectations for him in Ginn’s place should be softened despite his physical talent.
It’s clear that the Panthers will have a different type of offense in 2016. Ginn, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown were all capable-or-better deep threats who could stretch the field off of play action. Benjamin can threaten the defense deep but it doesn’t play to his skill set to use him like that repeatedly. Instead, he will be asked to work intermediate routes more often, using his size to fend off defenders over the middle of field and outside the numbers.