Carolina Panthers

Bucs-Panthers game matches top prospects for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year

Carolina Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin was beaten by Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans in a game of H-O-R-S-E before the NFL draft. He lost in ping-pong to New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., too.

Now he’s in another competition with the receivers: The chase for offensive rookie of the year.

When the Panthers play the Buccaneers on Sunday, Benjamin and Evans will have a rematch that could go a long way in deciding who wins the award.

And if it were up to Evans, it would go to someone other than him.

“(Benjamin) has just been one of the best, he’s been one of the best rookies in the whole league,” Evans said on a teleconference with Charlotte reporters this week. “I’ve watched a lot of film on him with common opponents and he is a beast. He is really physical and he makes the 50-50 catches and he blocks really well too.”

Evans didn’t put himself in the conversation because the Bucs “have the worst record,” but he certainly has a case. He’s first in receiving yards with 935, first in touchdowns with 10 and fifth in receptions with 57.

Benjamin is second across the board in receptions (59), yards (848) and touchdowns (nine).

Together, they are part of what many consider to be the best rookie receiving class in NFL history. Six have at least six touchdown receptions this year for the first time in league history.

“Other than that quarterbacking group that came out in ’83, this is a pretty doggone good group,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, referring to the rookie class that produced John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, among others. “It really is. They’re a lot of fun to watch. All of them. there’s a lot of good receivers that came out of this group, and they’re all having success.

“It’s interesting because I go back to our ranking and how we discussed it and who was ranked above whom. All I know is the guys playing well are the guys we ranked highly. They’re doing a nice job and we were very fortunate to get Kelvin.”

The Bucs selected Evans with the seventh overall pick, and Evans was the second receiver taken after Sammy Watkins went to Buffalo. At Texas A&M, Evans showed an uncanny ability to use his large body against defensive backs and leap over them to make catches.

Benjamin went 28th overall to the Panthers and was the fifth receiver selected. He knows he’s in good position for the award, but he also understands the level of competition around him.

“I feel like the whole class, they’ve been getting off. I tip my hat to all the rookies,” Benjamin said. “You got to put it in perspective. How many guys out of all the rookies, how many times they heard they wouldn’t be able to do this or that? All them showing up each week for their teams. … I tip my hat.”

In their first meeting, Benjamin had six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. Evans had five catches for 37 yards.

Since then, Evans has gotten hot while Benjamin has maintained the pace he set in the season opener.

“I think Mike Evans is more comfortable,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “He didn’t do a whole lot that first game. But you can see him more now. He’s comfortable now and he’s showing up. He’s a weapon for them now. He and Vincent (Jackson) are a good tandem.”

But who’s the better receiver? That’s not a question Benjamin can answer.

“You can’t really say who’s the better football player,” Benjamin said. “That’s like asking who’s better: Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant. You can’t say that. They’re good at different things. We’re all different types of wide receivers, some big, some speed, some small.

“You can’t say who’s a better wide receiver. But overall I look at it as one of the best receiver classes.”

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