In the Carolina Panthers locker room on Wednesday afternoon, the consensus reaction to the trade of No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo on Tuesday, just before the NFL’s trade deadline, was surprise.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t surprise me,” said receiver Russell Shepard. “It surprised everybody in the building. It surprised some of the people on the coaching staff.
“You know, it just shows you that as much of a game it is, this is also a business. Some decisions, man, they come from left field.”
But the shock must be short-lived, because Carolina needs to find answers on offense – and production.
Receiver Devin Funchess (who told media he will speak on Thursday), will obviously take over the No. 1 spot with Benjamin gone. Funchess has seen his production increase this season after head coach Ron Rivera admitted in the summer he had been underutilized in 2016, and has 33 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns.
But opposite Funchess (as well as in the slot), Carolina wants to lean away from the prototype that both Funchess and Benjamin fall into, in favor of more speed and versatility.
“What was done was in the best interest of this football team and this organization,” said Rivera. “Kelvin has done terrific things for us and is a heck of a football player. What this does for us is give us an opportunity to put some young guys on the field with some speed.
“...I think what we had was we had two guys with similar skill sets in (Benjamin) and Funch, and we have a group of young guys that we needed to get on the football field to create some speed. And these young guys will get their opportunities.”
Throughout the latter half of the season, Panthers will now lean on three receivers to make up for – and in their hopes, surpass – the production they’ll lose in Benjamin’s absence: Shepard, rookie second-round pick Curtis Samuel and Kaelin Clay.
Shepard was interestingly in a similar situation in Tampa Bay in 2016, when the two receivers ahead of him on the depth chart got hurt and his name got called in a big way. He ended up becoming one of quarterback Jameis Winston’s favorite targets and produced a body of work that made him an appealing free agent to the Panthers the following spring.
“I was asked to go from really playing no offense at all to being a starter,” he said. “I’m excited. Obviously they’re not going to make that move if they don’t feel comfortable with the guys they have in the room.
“Like I said before, Kelvin was an amazing receiver. He’s done some great things in this league and with this team, and I’m very appreciative of playing with him and I know the other guys are as well.
“But at the same time, I know them making that decision, they feel comfortable with the guys they have in the room. I feel comfortable with the guys we have in the room.”
Samuel has struggled to find his footing in the Panthers offense to date, which is largely due to missing most of training camp and the preseason to injury. The speedy receiver/running back out of Ohio State was unable to sync immediately with quarterback Cam Newton, who also missed much of the same time. Samuel has just seven catches for 47 yards so far this year.
Samuel said Wednesday that in recent weeks, he’s been able to get more comfortable on the field – although where exactly he fit in Carolina’s offense seemed to be a work in progress.
Rivera said that not having Benjamin on the roster will actually provide a little more definition to Samuel’s role, instead of putting more pressure on the rookie to perform.
“Now you’re not trying to find a way to get him on the field,” said Rivera. “Now he’s got a specific role. This is what you do. You’re the Z, or you’re the F, as opposed to ‘OK, you’re the Z, you’re the F, you’re the H, you’re the whatever.’ Now we don’t have to work to find opportunities for guys.”
Clay is also an intriging option for Carolina, especially with the speedy Damiere Byrd still ineligible to return from injured reserve after breaking his forearm against New England. Byrd seemed to be the heir apparent to Ted Ginn Jr., who was Carolina’s former burner receiver but went to New Orleans in free agency in the spring.
Carolina has not been able to stretch the field vertically this year, and that has not only hurt them in the passing game (they rank No. 19 in the NFL in passing offense), but also when trying to establish the run.
Because opposing defenses don’t “respect” the potential of chunk passing plays from the Panthers’ offense, they are able to load more defenders into the box in lieu of stricter coverage of receivers, which in turn clogs things up against running backs.
While this is not the only problem in Carolina’s rushing attack, which has surpassed 100 yards just once in the team’s last four games, it’s a definite factor.
“We had a lot of single safeties, so that meant the other safety was in the box,” said Rivera. “We have to do something to alleviate the pressure that’s being put on the offense to run the ball.
“You start looking at it and you go back to the last couple of times that we’ve really struggled running the football. And you start seeing the eight and nine guys in the box and you start seeing when guys zero-blitz you in the middle of the field on second and 8, second and 10. There’s a little something there where you sit there and go, ‘OK. They’re not respecting your ability to do certain things.’”