As they deal with the fallout of Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending knee injury, the Panthers have a few options as they move forward without their No. 1 wide receiver.
They can try to expedite the development of rookie receiver Devin Funchess, sign one of a handful of out-of-work, veteran wideouts or gear their passing offense toward Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson.
The other option? All of the above.
The available free-agent market is not overflowing.
Reggie Wayne has a Super Bowl ring and six Pro Bowl appearances, but he turns 37 in November.
Wes Welker is a slot receiver, which the Panthers don’t need.
Josh Cribbs was more of a returner his last three seasons, and the Patriots cut ties with Brandon Lloyd a couple of years ago because of reported attitude problems.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has talked at length about the improved depth at receiver throughout training camp.
And he’s right: The Panthers have a dependable possession receiver in Jerricho Cotchery, two speed guys in Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown, another tall, young target in Funchess and a couple of players fighting for the final wideout spots in Brenton Bersin and Jarrett Boykin.
But they don’t have anyone like Benjamin, who became the most prolific rookie receiver in team history last season.
Losing a No. 1 receiver for any length of time would be tough on any team. But with his size, strength and ability to catch the ball at its highest point, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin was the Panthers’ best receiver from the minute he arrived in 2014 following the team’s purge at the position that offseason.
The most logical candidate to assume Benjamin’s role is Funchess, this year’s second-round pick from Michigan.
But there are a couple impediments. In the short term, Funchess won’t be available for a few days after pulling his hamstring late in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Miami Dolphins.
In the months leading to the draft last spring, a lot of analysts tried to paint Funchess as a tight end. But at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Funchess is much leaner than Benjamin, who’s built more like quarterback Cam Newton than Funchess.
In basketball terms, Benjamin is like a power forward; Funchess a small forward.
Funchess has shown early on that he’s a more fluid route-runner than perhaps scouts gave him credit for. And while he’s not a burner, like Benjamin he’s fast enough.
But where Benjamin’s signature move is going up over defensive backs to pluck the ball out of the air, Funchess often uses his body to create space horizontally between himself and the defender.
Rivera said Funchess has done “a really nice job” in his first four months as a pro, but he’s not Benjamin.
“He and Kelvin are different types of players. Kelvin’s a big, stout physical guy and Funchess uses his size to position himself,” Rivera said. “He’ll have to step it up to learn that style and technique of play.”
Cornerback Josh Norman knows the Panthers’ receiving corps as well as anyone, and sees their various talents every time he’s lined up against one of them. He called it a formidable group.
“Funchess is coming on into his own, and he’s learning from the veteran guys. You’ve got Cotchery who’s going to be possession all the way. That’s his makeup and his deal right now. He’s that leader for the wide receivers group,” Norman said.
“You got Philly Brown. He’s running and opening the field up. And Ted Ginn who’s another speedster, who’s probably just as fast. He’s opening the wide receiver group up for the deep ball as well,” Norman continued. “So you have guys there that can make some plays. And just taking that into consideration, losing a guy like K.B., I feel there are guys who can step up into that role and make things happen.”
Rivera says losing Benjamin would not change the complexion of the offense. But you have to think Olsen’s role will expand, as will that of Dickson, another receiving threat.
And that talk about the Panthers protecting Newton after he signed his $103 million extension in June? Don’t expect offensive coordinator Mike Shula to scrap the zone read anytime soon.
Ginn says once Shula and the offensive staff come up with a plan, there’s enough talent among the receivers to execute it.
“I think we’re pretty loaded all the way around,” Ginn said. “Coaches are the ones that have to mastermind the scheme. We’ve just got to go out and play. That’s all we can do. I believe we’ve got the guys in the room that can catch the balls and get open, and pick up some of the slack if Kelvin is not there.”
But there’s only one “lead dog,” the title the 33-year-old Cotchery bestowed on Benjamin in camp.
Asked if any of the other wideouts had a skill set similar to Benjamin’s, Cotchery conceded he didn’t know.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Cotchery said. “They’ve done a great job of creating a lot of competition in the room. So this is one of those instances where it will benefit you having guys having the opportunity to step up. So that’s what we need right now.”