Former Carolina Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin took a not-so-subtle jab at quarterback Cam Newton this week, just days before Benjamin’s current team, the Buffalo Bills, takes on the Panthers in Week 1 of the preseason.
Benjamin, the 2014 first-round draft pick of the Panthers, was interviewed by Tim Graham of The Athletic, and was asked to assess his career since his rookie season.
“I mean, I felt like I would’ve been even more successful if ... I don’t know, man ... If I would’ve ... Looking back on it, I should’ve just been drafted by somebody else. I should’ve never went to Carolina,” he told Graham.
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“Truly, I just think Carolina was bad for me. It was a bad fit from the get-go. If you would’ve put me with any other quarterback, let’s be real, you know what I’m saying? Any other accurate quarterback like (Aaron) Rodgers or Eli Manning or Big Ben (Ben Roethlisberger) — anybody! — quarterbacks with knowledge, that know-how to place a ball and give you a better chance to catch the ball. It just felt like I wasn’t in that position.”
Social media, of course, lit up with commentary about Benjamin’s remark.
So it might be nice to present a few facts, to hopefully cut through all of the noise.
First, Benjamin is absolutely entitled to his own “bad fit from the get-go” opinion, but statistically it is inaccurate.
“From the get-go,” Benjamin set the Panthers’ rookie receiving record in 2014 with 1,008 yards on 73 catches. He got the most targets of any pass-catcher on the team, with 145 (overall, a 50.3 percent catch rate). Newton had 3,127 passing yards and a 58.5 completion percentage, and had to miss two games to injury.
Benjamin tore his ACL during the following training camp and sat out the 2015 season.
That year, with his main targets 33-year-old former 108th-overall draft pick Jerricho Cotchery, tight end Greg Olsen and 30-year-old former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., Newton recorded an MVP season and the Panthers went 15-1 and to the Super Bowl.
In 2016, Carolina went 6-10, but Benjamin still recorded 63 catches and 941 yards, and was the second-most targeted pass-catcher behind Olsen with 118 targets. Newton’s completion percentage dropped to 52.9, but Benjamin had only 67 yards’ difference in his season (and only 10 catches).
There were also frequent head-scratching moments in 2016. At times, Benjamin failed to separate from or box out defensive backs despite always having the size advantage. Against San Diego, he turned to a referee to plead for a whistle instead of running down an interception on a pass intended for him. In the same game, he didn’t run down a would-be pick six while Newton and former receiver Philly Brown busted tail to chase down the defensive back as Benjamin jogged down the field. Head coach Ron Rivera said after the game that he was “fine” with Benjamin’s effort. Benjamin was not in the locker room after the game, but said later that week that he “probably should have finished.”
Newton dove after the defensive back to try to prevent the touchdown (it ultimately got called back, though the interception stood), landing oddly on his shoulder. After the season concluded, it was revealed by the team that he suffered a shoulder injury in that same game.
That spring, Rivera told reporters that Benjamin had showed up to spring workouts overweight. Social media was brutal in its response to that news, making jokes and memes about it. It was later revealed that Benjamin also had to deal with the loss of his mother that spring.
Benjamin responded to someone on Twitter on Saturday following the interview’s release who remarked on his former weight, saying that the workouts are “not even mandatory” and to “go ask them about every training camp I came to ... was ready for war!”
He did lose the extra weight by training camp.
But while NFL rules state that spring workouts are not mandatory, there is an unspoken sentiment on Rivera’s team that one must show up, and show up ready. This holds true for rookies and for veterans.
Carolina traded Benjamin to Buffalo for 2018 third- and seventh-round draft picks in October. They then moved Devin Funchess to the “X,” thus beginning the receivers rebuild that we now see in the current room.
The Panthers went 6-2 after the trade and finished the 2017 season 11-5. Newton finished the year with a 59.15 completion percentage. Benjamin had 475 yards with the Panthers in eight games in 2017, and just 217 yards in six games with the Bills (he missed three games to injury).
Carolina was 21-3 in the regular season without Benjamin over the past four years. They were 18-21-1 with him on the field.
Benjamin posted on Twitter later Saturday afternoon, saying “I’m just crazy then! I was the one who buried my mom and skip the grievance process to get back and help that team ... let’s be real (it) was all fake ... and to be honest I was salty(.) Who wouldn’t be. ... I just (been) holding it all in. And now I’m free.
“Hate me or love me.”
He’ll see many of his former teammates on Thursday in Buffalo, including Newton, who said after the trade that he was “emotional” and that “you can’t replace a Benji.” He’ll also see the former head coach who publicly stuck up for him through questions about his effort.
I suppose it’s up to them to decide.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue