Panthers Cam Newton praying for Kelvin Benjamin throughout game
The Panthers pulled off a stunning trade-deadline move Tuesday, sending No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo in a move made in part to get more speed on the field.
The Panthers will receive the Bills' third- and seventh-round picks in 2018 but had to give up one of quarterback Cam Newton's favorite targets in return.
Panthers interim general manager Marty Hurney said Bills GM Brandon Beane -- Hurney's former assistant -- called him Tuesday afternoon inquiring about Benjamin.
Hurney liked the idea of moving a player whose size (6-foot-5) and skill set were nearly identical to that of No. 2 wideout Devin Funchess.
“This was more about getting more speed on the field. We've got some young players who we think have some real ability,” Hurney said in a phone interview. “Kelvin was a very good player and was productive for us. It was more getting a mix of skill sets on the field and more speed.”
Before he was fired, former GM Dave Gettleman had exercised the fifth-year option on Benjamin for 2018. So trading him saves the Panthers $8.5 million against the salary cap next year.
Hurney was not around when Gettleman drafted Benjamin in the first round in 2014, then snagged Funchess in the second round the following year.
Panthers players reacted unfavorably to the trade on social media, including cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who tweeted: “smh (shaking my head).”
Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner tweeted, “Damn.”
Hurney said he expects Funchess to slide into Benjamin's former X spot as the lead receiver, with rookie Curtis Samuel moving into Funchess' vacated role at Z. Speedy wideout Kaelin Clay also could see more playing time.
But the Panthers, who are 5-3 at the midseason point and built to win now, are now without their best receiver, albeit one who has struggled with his weight and attitude at times.
It has been a stressful year for Benjamin, who showed up to offseason workouts overweight and was body-shamed on social media. Benjamin was close to 270 pounds during the spring, but weighed in at 243 for the start of training camp.
Benjamin then lost his mother in July, posting on Instagram that her death left him in a “dark place.”
When he met with reporters in September, Benjamin said he was going to dedicate “every snap” to his mother.
“From losing my mom (and) starting in OTAs with the weight problems and with all that – the bullying on social media. But I’m built for it,” he said in September. “I’ve always been going against something like that. But I’m grinding. My mom raised me right.”
But the first half of this season was rocky for Benjamin, as well.
Benjamin saw his targets plummet with the arrival of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, whose 49 catches are a team high and a single-season record for a Panthers running back.
Benjamin then had the bursa sac on his surgically repaired knee swell up after a hit during a loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 12.
The following week Benjamin walked out of a practice, saying later he was frustrated about his knee.
He missed practice the next day, but played that week at Chicago.
Hurney said Benjamin's off-field issues were not a factor in trading him.
Benjamin's 32 receptions ranked third behind McCaffrey and Devin Funchess, although his 475 receiving yards were a team high.
After Benjamin caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Newton in a 17-3 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday, Newton heaped praise on Benjamin, who was playing his first game in his native state since his mother's death.
“He’s a person that’s an unbelievable teammate. He comes to work each and every day,” Newton said after the game. “He may not be the talkative person all the time, but I guarantee you, when you want people in your foxhole, Kelvin Benjamin is the person that you want.
“You know you can just see it on his face. He’s usually a very enthusiastic person come gameday, and man, I could just see it.”
Benjamin was the 28th overall pick in 2014, and set receiving records for a Panthers rookie with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns.
Benjamin missed the Super Bowl season of 2015 when he blew out his ACL during non-contact play at training camp.
This is the second trade Hurney has made with Beane, the longtime member of Carolina's front office who joined ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Buffalo before this season.
The Panthers sent Clay and a late-round pick to Buffalo for cornerback Kevon Seymour. They reacquired Clay last week when the Bills waived him.
Hurney said things moved quickly after Beane called him.
“We want to get a mix of skill sets on the field. We want to get more speed on the field,” Hurney said. “Buffalo expressed interest in Kelvin and the deal got done late right before the trade deadline.”
And the ripples of it will be felt for some time.