This is the time in the NFL calendar when everyone – fans, media, front offices – becomes enamored with all that is shiny and new.
The frantic first days of free agency, followed seven weeks later by the draft, create an atmosphere in which teams can become smitten with the next, hot thing.
Often lost in the breathless coverage by ESPN and NFL Network are the players who used to be shiny and new.
As long as wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin remains with the Panthers, the team that drafted him in the first round three years ago, he’ll never be new again.
But Benjamin can get his shine back.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman met with reporters Friday morning at Bank of America Stadium and addressed several housekeeping matters:
▪ Defensive tackle Kawann Short hasn’t signed his franchise tag;
▪ Adding a year to Jonathan Stewart’s contract won’t preclude the Panthers from taking a running back high in the draft;
▪ The team will pick up Benjamin’s fifth-year option for 2018.
That last one was a no-brainer.
Whatever you think of how Benjamin played post-ACL surgery or his petulant behavior in at least one game last season when the ball wasn’t thrown his way, he’s still 6-foot-5 with a pterodactyl’s wingspan and a knack for getting in the end zone.
Plus, the fifth-year option allows teams to keep first-round picks on retainer at a relative bargain: Benjamin will make about $8 million in ’18 unless the Panthers give him a long-term deal in the interim.
Gettleman might want to hold off on that extension for the time being.
The biggest weapon
But on a team that didn’t want to pay too much for Ted Ginn Jr. and added a couple of complementary pieces in Russell Shepard and Charles Johnson (the II), Benjamin is still the biggest weapon among the wide receivers.
Benjamin’s 2016 season included the highs and lows you would expect from a big receiver coming off major knee surgery that sidelined him for a year.
Benjamin caught a combined 13 passes in the first two games and seemed to be progressing on pace before taking a late-season plunge.
During a five-game stretch beginning with a Thursday night game against New Orleans in November, Benjamin managed just 10 receptions. That dry streak included a two-catch game at Oakland during which Benjamin threw his helmet and yelled at a coach on the sideline because he was upset at being taken out of the game.
But Gettleman saw enough from Benjamin in the final two games – 10 catches and two touchdowns vs. Atlanta and Tampa Bay – to believe in better days ahead.
“Really fired up (with) the way Kelvin finished the year,” Gettleman said Friday. “He started the year strong, had that lull and then finished up (well). He was a man.”
What to expect
Benjamin likely will never be a 1,500-yard receiver like Julio Jones. He doesn’t have the speed to consistently create separation in space.
But Benjamin’s build and bulk make him an ideal red-zone target for Cam Newton. With his length and reach, Benjamin is open on fade routes even when there’s a defensive back hanging on him.
Gettleman had a field-level view for one of those catches in a Week 17 loss at Tampa Bay. After Benjamin had left his press-box perch, Benjamin skied for a 47-yard catch and run that set up a score (a Benjamin 5-yard TD) that pulled the Panthers to 17-16.
“Cam throws the ball and I’m saying to myself, ‘Who the hell is he throwing that to?’” Gettleman recalled. “And all of a sudden I see him jump. And it’s like, ‘Holy ....’”
The Panthers don’t need Benjamin to catch 100 passes a season, not with Greg Olsen playing at a Pro Bowl level and Ron Rivera re-committing to a power running game.
What they do need is for Benjamin to report to training camp in great shape (something he hasn’t always done, dating to his time at Florida State) and understand that not every Newton pass is going to be pre-destined for him.
With Gettleman’s best-player-available draft approach (which took a one-year hiatus in 2016 after he pulled Josh Norman’s franchise tag), it’s possible he drafts another new, shiny receiver next month.
But the shine hasn’t completely worn off Benjamin in Year 4. He just needs a little polish.