The Carolina Panthers are 5-3 and in the playoff hunt, but they have not scored nearly enough points this season. Yet they just did something a team in their predicament rarely does: They traded away their No. 1 wide receiver Tuesday.
It sounds ridiculous.
But I like it.
Trading Kelvin Benjamin in midseason is the sort of bold move that a guy with the word “interim” in his title rarely makes, and I’m as shocked as anyone else that Panthers interim general manager Marty Hurney actually pulled the trigger on it.
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“The thinking for us is just to get more speed on the field and a better diversity of skill sets on the field,” Hurney said in our phone interview.
As for whether this “for the future” sort of move means he has been promised he will become the team’s permanent GM once this season ends, Hurney said it did not mean that and that he doesn’t know what will happen after this season.
“This is not related to the length of time I will be in this job at all, whatever amount of time that is,” Hurney said. “You just do the job the best you can while you’re in it.”
What will Cam say?
Hurney will get ripped for doing this in many quarters, both privately and publicly. Panthers players certainly reacted poorly to the move on Twitter. And I can’t imagine that quarterback Cam Newton is very happy.
It was less than 48 hours before this deal went down that Newton said, unprompted: “When you want people in your foxhole, Kelvin Benjamin is the person that you want.”
In fact, I’ll bet Newton is privately furious.
Benjamin was perhaps the quarterback’s closest friend on the team. Newton apparently had no advance warning about this and was blindsided by this move just like the rest of the Panthers team was. (Hurney said he did talk to Benjamin Tuesday after the deal with Buffalo was completed, but he wouldn’t relay specifics of the conversation).
If the Panthers go 1-7 in the second half of the season because of this and score six points a game while Benjamin leads Buffalo to the Super Bowl, it will go down as one of the worst trades in Carolina history. And Hurney probably won’t be around anymore, either.
But I don’t actually think it will work out like that.
Addition by subtraction?
No matter how you slice this, though, the Panthers just sent one of their best players to Buffalo and former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, whose surprising Bills are 5-2. And the Panthers won’t get anything back for Benjamin until 2018 (when they receive third- and seventh-round draft choices from the Bills).
But before you start spouting 100 reasons why Benjamin getting shipped to Buffalo is a horrible idea, let me remind you of one thing: Carolina’s offense in 2015 didn’t have Benjamin for a single second. And that was the one season since Carolina drafted Benjamin that the Panthers’ offense was almost unstoppable.
So this may be “addition by subtraction” in one sense, and it’s also to get rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel on the field more. But most of all it’s because Hurney -- and coach Ron Rivera, who certainly would have had to approve of this move -- decided that having identical big, tall and not-very-fast receivers in the same starting lineup was not ideal. Remember, Dave Gettleman drafted both Benjamin and Devin Funchess. They aren’t Hurney’s guys.
Of course, the Panthers could have just traded Funchess instead. Hurney wouldn’t address why he traded Benjamin instead of Funchess – and in fact Hurney declined to answer many of my questions about Benjamin in general and wouldn’t touch talking about any of Benjamin’s off-field issues with me.
So here’s my guess based on observing Benjamin for a long time.
The Panthers obviously think Funchess has more speed than Benjamin. They threw him three deep balls Sunday against Tampa Bay, although none were completed. Funchess also doesn’t cost as much (Benjamin would have counted $8.5 million against the salary cap in 2018; Buffalo has to guarantee him that money now while Carolina can spend it elsewhere).
And there’s this: Benjamin is a high-maintenance player who is not a natural leader. He could be a prima donna at times. This is almost part of the job description for NFL wide receivers, and in no way am I saying Benjamin approached the Terrell Owens bar.
Had Benjamin reached his ceiling?
So what, you say? After all, Steve Smith could be a prima donna, too.
That’s true, but there are some big differences between Smith and Benjamin. For one, Smith was far more productive. For another, Smith practiced harder. For another, Smith never fought on-and-off weight problems like Benjamin did.
Smith and I had our arguments over the years. But he was always a professional on the field and you could never, ever question his work ethic. Benjamin was a professional – sometimes – and you could question his work ethic.
In my mind, Benjamin has reached his NFL ceiling. That ceiling will make him millions, but I’d be surprised if it ever makes him a truly great NFL receiver. He’s a big receiver who’s good on slants and near the goal line – he caught a 25-yard TD pass against Tampa Bay Sunday by boxing out a smaller defensive back.
Benjamin will end up with 900-1,000 yards receiving in seasons when he stays healthy (and he’s still having some lingering knee problems right now, which is what made him walk suddenly off the Panthers’ practice field two weeks ago in a curious incident).
Absurd? Or bold?
Of course, that’s still good productivity, and Carolina didn’t have to trade him. If the Panthers were so enamored with having different “skill sets” on the field, they could have just benched No. 13. Believe me, though -- that could have turned into a major distraction in the Panthers locker room.
So the Panthers have shipped Benjamin out, and now they have one less weapon on a mediocre offense that has averaged only 10 points in its past two games. It sounds absolutely absurd when you first hear it.
In reality, this trade is not absurd in the least. Hurney and Rivera are trying to do something to a team that needs some help, even if it is 5-3.
I applaud the boldness. I don’t actually know if trading Benjamin away will work out or not. Nobody does, really, no matter how loud that person shouts at you in the next 24 hours.
But I get the logic behind the move.
And ultimately, it makes a convoluted kind of sense.