Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin can’t rely solely on his athleticism anymore.
It got him through high school and into Florida State. And it helped him catch the game-winning touchdown pass in the BCS title game against Auburn.
But seven weeks into his first NFL regular season, Benjamin knows that will get him only so far in the NFL, where cornerbacks are better, more physical and devour tape on their opponents.
“I haven’t even scratched the surface yet I feel like,” Benjamin said. “I still have a lot to learn. I’m out there playing with my athleticism and playing fast. Even just small things, like even when I do catch the ball, just get down. People say, ‘Get down, get down KB!’ But I’m young and I end up getting hit. Just things like that.”
Through seven games, Benjamin has positioned himself among the leaders for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He leads all rookie receivers with 477 receiving yards and five touchdowns, and he’s tied for second in receptions with 34.
But Benjamin said he’s not thinking about the award, which Panthers quarterback Cam Newton won three years ago. He’s focused on getting better.
He’s refined his go-to route – the 5-yard slant – as opponents wised up to his tendencies. He has worked tirelessly on the sidelines during practice on his hip movement, to make him a better route runner.
Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary comes to Charlotte and will match Richard Sherman, widely considered the best cornerback in the league, against Benjamin. At 6-foot-2, Sherman has more length than most corners, and he’ll be the best litmus test yet.
A maturation process
Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl wasn’t going to lie. Benjamin’s work ethic, Proehl said, isn’t where the coach wants it to be. But he added that Benjamin has come a long way since the spring.
“At times he can get lazy, but he knows it and sees it,” Proehl said. “When you talk to him, he picks it up. For me with him, we talk about it all the time, it’s about being that consistent pro. You want to be the best that you can be, you have to do it. And it’s not easy – it’s hard. That’s why everybody can’t do it. It’s him learning and going through that maturation.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera posits some of Benjamin’s lack of work ethic comes simply because he’s not used to being a professional. In college, NCAA rules stipulate players can only practice up to four hours a day, which is what Benjamin would do at Florida State.
In Charlotte, Benjamin comes to the facilities around 7 a.m. and leaves around 5 p.m.
Veteran receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, with 20 years of NFL experience between them, have shepherded Benjamin along.
Benjamin has seen how they take care of their bodies during the season, and the film-watching habits and preparation for game day rub off, Proehl said.
“It can become a grind from training camp to the season, the monotony of doing the same thing every day,” said Proehl, who played 17 seasons in the NFL. “You get bumps and bruises and learn how to work through that stuff to prepare yourself to play. If you don’t have the Jasons and the Jerrichos in your environment, how do you deal with it? You have to learn on your own, and he’s been fortunate to have those guys around.”
Perhaps where Benjamin exhibits lackadaisical effort the most is on run blocking. At times he’s aggressive – and he’s been flagged for being too aggressive – but other times, when the ball is running away from his side of the field, he quits blocking.
He caught three passes for 61 yards and a touchdown last week against Green Bay, but Benjamin wasn’t pleased.
“Not to my standard,” Benjamin said of his play. “There were multiple things I could have done better. I need to go harder at practice and in the game playing fast. I got to finish downfield on blocks and just, at the end of plays, when guys have the ball and they’re running, just run to the ball just in case. It could be a fumble or anything.”
Bread and butter
Benjamin likes to call the 5-yard slant route his bread and butter. Of his 34 catches, 10 have come on that route, for 85 yards, according to an Observer film analysis. Thirteen of his receptions have come on slants of various lengths, for 114 yards.
But there are several ways to run a slant route, and Benjamin has had to evolve in the first seven weeks of the season. Early in the year he would run more into the defensive back’s chest and then cut, but they caught on to his ways.
Now Benjamin shakes at the line to create separation and goes across the face of the defender to get upfield and make the catch.
“You can be more physical and run into his chest and then run off him, or you can get off the line real quick like a dart,” Benjamin said. “You have to switch it up so the DBs don’t catch on to your tendencies.”
The slant route doesn’t lend itself to a lot of yards after catch, though. While Benjamin is 14th in the league in receiving yards, he’s tied for 143rd in the league with 68 yards after catch.
And those slants have led to some big hits on Benjamin, including one that left him concussed against the Bengals two weeks ago.
But running with the ball after the catch has never been Benjamin’s strong suit. His size makes him well-equipped for the fade and targets over the middle. According to Rotoworld, Benjamin averaged only 4.89 yards after the catch last season at Florida State, which was the lowest among the top 15 receivers in the class.
“It’s one of those things he did very well for them at Florida State last year,” Rivera said. “He is a big target, he presents a very good target for Cam, he does a lot of nice things. You like what he does, some things he’s better suited for like the high balls, and the unfortunate thing about that is he does get exposed.”
While his size gives him the edge on certain routes, it’s a hindrance on others. Routes that force Benjamin to turn his hips quickly and come back to the ball disagree with the 6-foot-5 receiver.
When the scout team is practicing against the defense, Benjamin goes on another practice field to work with Newton on his comeback routes.
“I think just repetition of the routes and you get more comfortable with them,” Benjamin said. “We do them all through practice.
“Coach Rick is a technician at running routes so you just have to know on a certain step you have to have your foot turned to bring yourself back downhill.”
Proehl saw Benjamin had the ability to run those routes when he worked him out before the draft. Benjamin can drop his hips well and plant his foot authoritatively, but it comes down to work ethic.
“It’s just him wanting to,” Proehl said. “You can tell what kind of day he’s having. If he feels good and ready to go, he plays fast, he gets in and out of his cuts and he can do it. It’s just a matter of him doing it on a consistent level. It’s a matter of him coming out with the frame of mind that I’m going to get better. That’s what I need to get out of him that it’s every day so it becomes a habit.”
A brand new slant
Seattle coach Pete Carroll eyed Benjamin in this year’s draft for the Seahawks. Now he gets to scheme against him.
Carroll admitted this week on a conference call that the Seahawks took a long look at Benjamin in the draft. Carolina selected Benjamin with the 28th overall pick, and Seattle eventually traded their 32nd pick to Minnesota.
“He’s got extraordinary catching range and the body and the length that he has can keep defensive backs away from him,” Carroll said. “We have a little bit better shot than some of the teams, but the teams that are playing with corners that are 5-11, it’s a big mismatch with 6 inches of height and weight and all of that. He’s a fantastic rookie right now and we know that they’re going to go to him and we’re going to have to do a great job covering him up.”
Benjamin will match up mostly against Richard Sherman, who this season has allowed 12 catches on 23 targets for 191 yards and one touchdown. Rodgers, who just picked apart Carolina’s defense last week, didn’t even throw at Sherman in their Week 1 matchup.
The Seahawks play with an eight-man front, meaning there are a number of one-on-one matches between receivers and corners. But Seattle safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas provide help.
“Yeah there’s going to be a lot of single coverage out there, but it’s not single coverage, bump-and-run man all the time,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Even though it’s one on one, they know where their help is coming from. Their knowledge and their athleticism make them good.”
It will be imperative Benjamin wins at his one-on-one matchups, and there’s no doubt he’ll revert to his bread-and-butter slant route. He’ll just have to add some new techniques he’s picked up along the way.
“This week I know I’m definitely going to have to play with (the route) because they’re going to watch a lot of film,” Benjamin said. “So I’m going to be out there teaching myself new ways to run a slant route.”