There is already a runaway winner for the title of most fascinating player for the Carolina Panthers in 2014: Kelvin Benjamin.
The rookie wide receiver is by turns exhilarating and infuriating, fantastic and flawed. He is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, for you never know what you are going to get with the player Cam Newton affectionately calls “Benji.”
Touchdown drop. A startling catch in which he tips the ball to himself in the end zone. Late for a team meeting and benched for the first three plays of a game. A 51-yard reception in double coverage against Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas.
Benjamin has done all that and a lot more this season. He will have another chance for a big day Sunday in the cold at Minnesota, when Newton will once again look for his favorite receiver and hope for the best.
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Brian Billick, the former Super Bowl-winning head coach at Baltimore, both praised and criticized Benjamin in a recent column for NFL.com when he ranked the sterling rookie class of wide receivers. He put Benjamin at No. 4, behind Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (first), the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham (second) and Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins (third).
Billick wrote this to go along with his column: “Benjamin burst onto the scene with three touchdown catches in his first four games, but he’s since been as frustrating as he’s been impressive. There is no doubt that Benjamin has the physical tools to be great, but he is far too inconsistent to rank any higher on this list. Of course, even with all the mental errors and drops, he still has a scary 52 catches, 768 yards and eight touchdowns.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? If Benjamin didn’t give you two great things every time he took another away, maybe he wouldn’t be worth the trouble. But he is a future Pro Bowl candidate wrapped in a 6-5, 240-pound body.
“Cam Newton with dreads,” former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith once called him, and in terms of body type that’s a very accurate description.
Like Newton, the Panthers started Benjamin right away. It became apparent in training camp that Benjamin was the best receiver Carolina had following an offseason (and misguided) purge of the top four wide receivers from last season.
Since then No. 13 has been the No. 1 receiver that Smith once was for this franchise. Benjamin is bigger than Smith, but not nearly as elusive after the catch. Benjamin’s specialty is the 5-yard slant pass, when he uses his big body to shield from smaller cornerbacks.
But even that pass backfires sometimes. On Carolina’s second possession against Philadelphia in a Monday night game, Benjamin simply stopped running on a slant, allowing the cornerback to cut in front of him and intercept Newton.
To be fair, Newton was also late throwing the ball. But as former NFL coach and TV analyst Jon Gruden said on the broadcast: “Benjamin stopped running! You never stop running on a slant – ever!”
In an interview this past week, Benjamin said he was still “learning” the NFL ropes and hopes to make fewer mistakes as his career goes on. Against the Vikings, he believes he will mostly be covered by Xavier Rhodes, a former teammate of Benjamin’s at Florida State.
Benjamin has been involved in about half the highlight plays for an anemic Panthers offense this season. None of his catches had a higher degree of difficulty than the 51-yarder over Sherman and Thomas, which left Seattle’s standout cornerback praising the rookie afterward.
“He’s a really good receiver,” Sherman said. “He’s huge, and he has a huge catch radius. You have to be aware of all that. He has speed. He made some fantastic plays today.”
But while Benjamin has been the only Panthers player who can consistently get open this season, that doesn’t mean he will always catch the ball. He had three drops in one game and also dropped a TD pass against Seattle. But even after the errors, Newton routinely goes back to Benjamin within a few plays.
He doesn’t have a choice, really. Newton’s only two consistent playmakers on offense this season have been Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen.
Benjamin noted that the Panthers have already played 11 games, which is about the length of many college football seasons. “This is the time when they say rookies will hit a wall,” Benjamin said.
He doesn’t plan to do that, Benjamin said. His goals are simple: Get better, have fun and win a game, which the Panthers have not done since Oct. 5.
As for Beckham and the other rookie wide receivers, Benjamin doesn’t much like to compare. He did say Beckham’s amazing one-handed catch against Dallas last Sunday night made him say “Wow,” and he did rate it a nine on a scale of 1-10. Benjamin said he wouldn’t give the acrobatic catch a 10 simply because the stakes weren’t high enough when Beckham made it.
The stakes for Benjamin’s catches for the remainder of this season probably won’t be that high, either.
But Benjamin remains the Panthers’ most fascinating player in a forgettable season – and a future potential superstar if he can ever harness that incredible potential.