Carolina Panthers

Is Kelvin Benjamin eating his way out of the Carolina Panthers’ plans?

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin finished ’16 on an upswing, providing the front office a glimpse of hope that he could regain the form from his rookie year.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin finished ’16 on an upswing, providing the front office a glimpse of hope that he could regain the form from his rookie year. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Early Saturday evening in the span of about an hour, Panthers officials did and said a couple of things that signaled the complacency that seemed to settle in after the 2015 Super Bowl season won’t be tolerated.

By drafting a kicker in the seventh round and confirming wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had shown up to offseason workouts overweight, the Panthers put returning kicker Graham Gano and Benjamin on notice.

While Graham Gano’s situation is strictly production-related, Kelvin Benjamin’s involves production and pounds.

Both players are coming off disappointing seasons.

Gano missed eight field goals in 2016, including a 50-yard, tone-setter in the Super Bowl rematch at Denver in Week 1. Gano’s troubles continued through Week 17, when he flubbed three field goals in a 1-point loss at Tampa Bay.

After the game, Panthers coach Ron Rivera hinted that he’d be bringing in competition for Gano. That comes in the person of Georgia Tech industrial engineer Harrison Butker, who became the first kicker ever drafted by the Panthers when they grabbed him in the last round.

Gano has been mostly reliable during his five seasons in Charlotte and has a big leg on kickoffs. But he missed too many kicks last season, and it will be interesting to see how he responds in the first real position battle he’s faced here.

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Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano walks off the field after missing a possible game-winning field goal in the closing seconds against the Denver Broncos in the season opener. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

While Gano’s situation is strictly production-related, Benjamin’s involves production and pounds.

Benjamin had a strong start last fall after he sat out a year following ACL surgery. But he disappeared for long stretches of the season, and threw his helmet – and a hissy fit – when he was taken out of the Oakland game.

Benjamin finished ’16 on an upswing, providing the front office a glimpse of hope that he could regain the form from his rookie year.

But the only thing Benjamin gained during the offseason was an extra inch around his midsection.

Pounds seem to stick to Benjamin’s 6-foot-5 frame. This winter pudge is not a new development, but it’s becoming a disconcerting pattern.

Despite general manager Dave Gettleman saying in March he planned to pick up Kelvin Benjamin’s fifth-year option for 2018, the Panthers have yet to do so.

When he arrived at Florida State a little too heavy, he was redshirted as a freshman.

After his 1,000-yard rookie season, Benjamin put on some extra pounds that offseason, which Rivera said might have contributed to hamstring issues.

That Rivera was willing to discuss Benjamin’s weight issue Saturday after the draft concluded was evidence of how ticked he is with Benjamin.

But the public admonishment is just the least of it.

Despite general manager Dave Gettleman saying in March he planned to pick up Benjamin’s fifth-year option for 2018, the Panthers have yet to do so.

With Wednesday’s deadline fast approaching, it’s pretty clear the Panthers are considering declining the option and letting Benjamin play the 2017 season with no assurances and the possibility it could be his last in a Carolina uniform.

At a minimum, Gettleman is making Benjamin sweat out the deadline after showing little discipline at the dinner table over the winter.

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Pounds seem to stick to Kelvin Benjamin’s 6-foot-5 frame. This winter pudge is not a new development, but it’s becoming a disconcerting pattern. Above, Benjamin signs autographs at a July 29 practice in Spartanburg. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Benjamin is listed at 245 pounds, but his ideal playing weight is closer to 250 to 252, according to a team source. There were rumblings inside the organization that Benjamin had ballooned to around 260 near the end of last season.

No how matter tall and big-boned Benjamin might be, that’s not wideout weight. It’s about three Bo-Berry biscuits short of a 3-point stance.

Rivera wouldn’t say what Benjamin weighed when he reported in April for the start of voluntary workouts. But the coach did say a broadcast report that Benjamin was touching 280 was inaccurate.

The educated guess here is that Benjamin showed up weighing at least what he did at the end of the season.

If I were Dave Gettleman, I’d pick up the option on Kelvin Benjamin, understanding that doesn’t mean he’ll be on the team in 2018.

Benjamin seems to have gotten the message and has been trying to work his way into shape, according to Rivera. But the fact that the Panthers have to keep delivering the same message is a troubling trend.

Benjamin is a first-round draft pick entering his fourth season. He needs to be more committed to his craft if he’s ever going to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.

Gettleman said as much at the combine this year when discussing the development of Benjamin and No. 2 wideout Devin Funchess, a second-round pick in 2015 who has yet to make a significant impact.

“Their games have to mature. You’ve got to be a pro,” Gettleman said. “We all get there.”

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Cam Newton still needs the big target Kelvin Benjamin provides. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Whether Benjamin gets there while still on the Panthers’ roster remains to be seen.

If I were Gettleman, I’d pick up the option on Benjamin, understanding that doesn’t mean he’ll be on the team in 2018.

The fifth-year salaries for first-round picks – in Benjamin’s case, about $8.5 million – are guaranteed only for injury. As such, the Panthers can let Benjamin play this season and determine whether he’s worth keeping around.

If they decide he’s not, they can cut him and be off the hook for the ’18 salary – as long as they do it before the start of the next league year in March.

When he’s healthy and motivated, Benjamin has shown he’s a gifted receiver capable of going up and snatching the ball away from smaller defenders. That’s a valuable skill set in the red zone especially, no matter how many small, fast hybrid receivers Gettleman keeps bringing in.

First-round pick Christian McCaffrey and second-rounder Curtis Samuel will bring a different and much-needed element to the Panthers’ offense. But Cam Newton still needs the big target Benjamin provides.

I say give him another chance. Let’s hope I don’t end up eating my words.

Panthers beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue assesses the Panthers' first-round draft pick, Christian McCaffrey out of Stanford.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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