Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, essentially, has always been one thing: That tall guy who can pull down the football.
At least, that’s who he’s been since his second-ever organized football game, as a sophomore at Glades Central High in Belle Glade, Fla.
“I wasn’t a big sports guy (growing up),” he said. He was tall, though. And the coaches came calling.
“They kept sayin’, ‘You should play, you should play,” so I was like, ‘Aiight, I’ll give it a shot.’”
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Benjamin made varsity immediately despite only having the experience of playing football in the street with his friends. He doesn’t remember his first game.
But the second?
“I scored two touchdowns,” he laughed. “It was a lot of jump balls and basically just boxing people out.”
In college at Florida State from 2012-13, it was the same thing. He was the king of the deep ball at 6-foot-5, and 248 pounds, and averaged almost 19 yards per catch for a total of 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns his sophomore (and final) year. Then-quarterback Jameis Winston would just throw one up, he said, and knew Benjamin would be there to pull it down.
After being drafted by the Panthers 28th overall in 2014, Benjamin’s role was again largely the same. He averaged almost 14 yards per catch his rookie season, and scored nine touchdowns. At the time, quarterback Cam Newton said Benjamin was a player who could “revolutionize” the wide receiver position.
Benjamin certainly produced, but revolutionize?
That takes a little more than being just “that tall guy who can pull down the football.” A little something extra.
The long and short of it
Especially lately, as the Panthers have seen much more success in Newton’s short, quick-release passes to get the offense into a rhythm, and not as much on the deep ball. In a victory against Arizona last month, Carolina got out to a quick start as Newton targeted receivers on short passes 21 times (they caught 11), vs. five deep targets (they caught two).
The former, of course, are well-suited for either a smaller, speedier receiver or for a player who can rack up a few yards after contact (YAC-yards).
Benjamin understood the potential for his targets to stay up was to prove he could be multifaceted, to fit the needs of the offensive scheme.
“The physical part is still there, I still have that,” he said. “Just playing fast, I always try to play with the speed of a smaller guy in my assignments. Just trying to come off the ball full speed, get that defensive back running. I just try to play quick, really. It’s pretty much explosive work. Exploding off the ball.
“It doesn’t (come naturally). I have worked hard on it. Just trying to run through lines, ball tucked (under his arm).”
Benjamin also is trying to increase his opportunity in the short game with contested catch-and-run plays, driving his legs after a reception to glean extra yards.
“For how big he is, he has really good body control,” said tight end Ed Dickson. “When he catches the ball, much like myself (or another tight end), he’s not trying to fall with it. He’s trying to get those extra yards. That’s the mentality. You’re not going to let one person tackle you. I think that’s his mentality, that he’s going to be physical with the ball and without the ball.”
A taste for contact
It helps Benjamin to compartmentalize each aspect of the play, from exploding off the line of scrimmage to the catch itself, then shaking his coverage – or finding YAC-yards.
“It’s working on it (that helps), yeah,” said Dickson. “But it’s also having the heart to say, ‘OK. Guys are coming.’ They’re coming to take your head off. They’re coming to tackle you. They’re coming to hurt you. You just got to say, ‘Am I going to do what I can do get down the field?’ Kind of reckless abandon. I think he’s a physical player like that.”
Benjamin’s efforts to bring extra levels to his game are starting to pay dividends.
Against the Cardinals, Benjamin saw the highest snap counts of any in the receiving corps (not counting tight end Greg Olsen) and even surprised himself with a 50-yard catch-and-run, complete with a stiff-arm to fend off safety Tyrann Mathieu. Against the physical Rams the following week, he made a similar play for 24 yards, shaking three tackles in the process.
“I got a taste of it at that Cardinals game,” he said, grinning. “I liked it. And once I got that big run I just kind of realized, watching film, yeah I can get YAC-yards. That’s something to add to my game.”
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue