The Carolina Panthers weren't satisfied with the idea of taking a safe pick with the No. 28 pick, nor did they select a safe position. Instead of drafting scared they went big, in more ways than one. Kelvin Benjamin isn't the most raw wide receiver prospect in this year's draft, but he's close. There's a significant amount of risk, but if the Panthers can develop him there's a chance he's the player the league looks back on in three years and says "How the heck did he last?"
It's all about the phrase "where he wins," it's one you'll hear more and more in future drafts. These words have been added to our draft parlance as writers catch up to the way NFL teams think about prospects. General manager Dave Gettleman gave us a glimpse of this in his press conference after selecting Benjamin. We're learning that the majority of college programs don't adequately develop players for the NFL, not out of malice but lack of time. Instead of making players all-around players they're crudely whittled to fit a system. Some college systems better translate to the NFL, others don't. That's where this idea of "where he wins" comes in. It's not a condemnation of a player's skillset, but rather an understanding of what they can do right now at a competitive level.
This concept is vital to understanding why fan-favorite receivers often fall further than expected on draft day. It's not that guys like Quinton Patton and Marqise Lee aren't good, or couldn't be good -- it's about teams not having a good grasp on where they can win immediately. Think of it like you're hedging your bets. Sure you couldn't throw it all down on a single number on the roulette wheel, or you can place it on the corner. Those four numbers are "where he wins" the rest will be worked on.
Benjamin's size can't be taught. It's an innate factor in his game because he knows how to use it. We've seen tall receivers enter the league and not know how to use this advantage, but Benjamin gets it. In 50-50 situations he'll leave his feet with good timing and meet the ball at chest height. This achieves two things: Firstly it's a reliable way of catching, secondly it allow him to use his body as a shield from a would-be defender.
Some of Benjamin's best tape comes when these factors combine. He times his jumps well, knows how to extend and squares up to face the ball.
Jameis Winston is an astoundingly good quarterback, but he has his problems too -- many of which are overlooked when discussing Benjamin's weaknesses. Winston struggles with timing routes, rarely hitting his receivers in stride, instead waiting for them to finish their route before throwing. This is a huge reason why Benjamin lacked solid YAC numbers this season.
One has to believe that this was coaching, because other receivers didn't share this trait. That tells me that Benjamin was often a safety valve option in the FSU offense, purely by virtue of how long it took the ball to come his way.
Newton will get the ball out faster, because this is the NFL after all. Quarterbacks don't have the luxury of waiting quite so long to throw the ball. This doesn't absolve Benjamin of all responsibility, however. One of his problems is that he leaves his feet far too often, sometimes when it's not necessary. This has a huge impact on his ability to turn up-field and gain more yards.
It's a case of over-excitement, something you see a lot in Benjamin's film. There's simply no need for him to jump here, and it allows the safety time to close the distance. If he catches the ball with his feet on the ground there's time for him to make a move, possibly forcing a missed tackle -- but he doesn't.
Some of the criticism surrounding Benjamin centers on his perceived lack of quickness, hailing it as a marker for failure in the NFL. Give me a break. Size is part of the solution to him getting separation, but we tend to focus on superlatives way too much. Either a guy has "NFL speed" or is "too slow" without much room in between.
From a pure agility perspective he's adequate, when compared to large NFL receivers he's right in line. There are things bigger guys can't do, just as there are skills small players can't have. Worried about the measurables? Here's the closest combine comparison in the last decade. It just so happens he's another former FSU receiver.
|Anquan Boldin||Kelvin Benjamin|
|Weight||216 lbs||240 lbs|
Need more convincing? Here's an excerpt from Boldin's 2003 scouting report from Sports Illustrated. Tell me if you spot the similarities.
POSITIVES: Nice-sized wide out who consistently makes positive plays for the offense. Extends and catches the pass away from his frame, boxes out defenders and effectively runs after the reception. Adjusts to the errant throw, reaching back to catch the ball without breaking stride. Settles into the open spot on the field, looks the pass into his hands and pulls the throw out of the air. Displays focus, concentration and timing.
NEGATIVES: Not quick off the line of scrimmage, lacks sharpness running routes and overall quickness. Does not have the second gear or have separation downfield.
Benjamin showed some lapses in concentration and needs to work on catching in stride, but other than that the two players might as well be carbon copies of each other.
This idea of not gaining separation becomes a moot point when a guy knows how to use his frame, it comes naturally. Boldin finished with 1,377 receiving yards his rookie year, pretty good for a guy without a second gear.
Year one expectations
There are flaws to Kelvin Benjamin's game that are easily correctable, others that will take more time. The best position for both him and the Panthers is to start him slowly. There's no need to start him right now with the veteran receivers on the roster and forcing him to absorb a full playbook out of the gate while working with Ricky Proehl is overkill.
On third down we saw the Panthers split Greg Olsen out wide or play him in the slot, this role should belong to Benjamin in 2014. He towers over nickel cornerbacks and most guys who play outside, making his body type a threat of its own on obvious passing downs.
Midway through the season he should see an expanded role, perhaps slowly being integrated into the starting offense. There's a chance he could be ready by week one, but there's just no need to force it. Concentrate on where he wins right now, fix the rest of the stuff in the interim.