Like it or not, Kelvin Benjamin will be a Panther for at least one season. How he progresses over the course of it will determine not just the Panthers' fortunes, but potentially his status on the depth chart come the start of the 2015-16 season. Here are a few things the Panthers' giant WR needs to work on for the rest of the year.
At the very least, OTAs and Rookie Mini camp have promoted the idea of Benjamin's potential as a receiver - if not also stressed the amount of work he has ahead of him to become a legitimate first option. Everyone has seen his big plays and spectacular catches. Everyone also knows his big flaws, his issues with concentration and perhaps even his struggles to get separation on the short routes Panthers playbooks have featured prominently since Steve Smith clawed his way to the top of the league. There are other, smaller, more important things Benjamin needs to improve on first though. It's going to sound harsh, because I'll only be pointing out stuff that he needs to work on, but it's important that Panthers fans come to grips with more than just the flashy catches and heartbreaking drops - and realize Benjamin is still a rookie who plays football like a rookie. I've pointed out a couple easy to miss things below, before heading into the game videos.
In looking over the same game film used for SBNation's own analyses of Benjamin, I noticed several occasions where the WR was a bit twitchy at the line. In college, anything short of an outright jump doesn't normally get a false start called on WRs. As big as Benjamin is though, if he's twitchy at the line in the NFL he'll get flagged. It could be a rarity even for him, but it's something to keep an eye on. He also enjoys getting a slight head-start on a few plays, especially ones where he's a significant target like the first drop in the Florida game. It's small, but important.
To go with being a little twitchy hear and there, Benjamin also gets away with a good number of ticky-tack grabs when he's out of position while blocking, or on the few occasions he's close enough to a play to contribute and actually making an effort. They're never huge and rarely called, but on occasion they're enough to draw a flag in the NFL.
Off Ball Effort
The biggest area Benjamin needs to work on, an area unlikely to show up in mini-camp or OTAs, is how he acts after his routes are complete or when he doesn't think the ball is coming his way. Anyone who watched Brandon LaFell closely enough in his time with Carolina knows exactly how frustrating a receiver who gives up on a route can be. They can wreak havoc on a play and find themselves missing out on big opportunities. Benjamin also shows a lack of aggression when coming back to the ball, costing his team possession on several plays when he could have potentially made a catch instead.
(For the sake of a faster page load, I'm not doing gifs - I'll just mark the relevant times in videos moving forward. I'll also include only one instance of each video, because more would be a hassle.)
FSU vs Florida
1:11 - The first incident of post route / off ball apathy I came across. Winston is under heavy pressure, but Benjamin (at the top of the screen) has room to work back towards the line and earn a solid completion on first down. Instead, as ESPN's second look at the sack shows, Benjamin is the only receiver actively standing still. While it's easy to write this off because Winston is being pressured, keep in mind Cam is one of the best in the league at evading rushes. Put Newton in the same situation and it's imperative Benjamin, the best outlet while under pressure on the play, work his way back to his QB.
1:30 - The very next play in the sequence, Benjamin slips out into the flat and a relatively open area in the zone. Again he stands and watches. It might be Winston's fault Benjamin doesn't get targeted here, as he tries to take off without even checking him, but Benjamin should still be working back down the sideline and distancing himself from his defender instead of just watching. Also, at least closing into the same vicinity as the play along with his man in case Winston broke free or fumbled would be nice.
1:43 - Purifoy gets away with defensive holding, but Benjamin should be driving back to the pass hard enough to drag a much smaller DB with him. This isn't all on Benjamin, but with his physical tools he should be able to make a play on the ball. It also comes down a bit to Benjamin's biggest problems on short hook routes. His weight is high, and he can't stop on the first plant, allowing Purifoy to affect his route with the hold and recover. Steve Smith, and this isn't me saying we'd be better with him because that doesn't matter, is a great resource for examples of how leverage can keep CB cheap shots from affecting a route. With probably around 50lbs and half a foot on his opponent, Benjamin shouldn't be getting knocked off a route by a grabbed jersey. Heck, he probably shouldn't be getting knocked off a route by anything short of Richard Sherman.
After the holding play, there are a couple in which Benjamin is asked to seal the back side on a running play, he does his job well because his task isn't terribly difficult, but shows some of his blocking technique issues when he doesn't have the jump on someone he's about to pancake. His arms are locked all the way out, a big blocking no-no because it sacrifices control and makes it easy for a player to earn a holding call by slipping outside of the blocker's shoulder pads. Benjamin's arm extension is the result of trying to make up for blocking flat footed, and in the NFL any decent OLB is going to blow him away if he's asked to drop down and block like that.
3:52 - The look back at a contested deep throw to Benjamin reveals him once again chopping his feet excessively to slow down, suggesting perhaps Purifoy's tug earlier wasn't the cause for Benjamin's inability to get turned around. While Benjamin makes a great catch, he should have been in a position to snag the pass and blow past a shoeless DB for a touchdown. Thanks to his chopping, Benjamin is unable to drive back to the ball at all, forcing him to lean back and only saving the ball from a likely interception thanks to his superior size. (Notice how Purifoy only takes two steps to gather himself, shifting his weight in the direction he's turning more than the rather upright Benjamin, and putting himself in a position to make a play despite his shoe problem.)
Benjamin is big though, so it's unfair to expect him to make cuts with the NFL's smaller, more agile receivers and similar DBs. Even if Benjamin had taken just one less step though, he would have had a chance to break away down the sideline thanks to the opportunity to stay on his feet and drive back through the DB.
4:09 - Possibly Benjamin's best play, but the way he carries the ball concerns me. He has a habit of letting it slip away from his body when making moves, and with his long arms (I originally typed larms, so from now on long arms are larms) that's a surefire fumble in the NFL. Smitty struggled with something similar for years, losing some big fumbles as he fought for YAC without the ball tucked away.
5:23 - Benjamin, second from the top, runs the same slant he scored on earlier. Almost everything with this play is fine, except the body catch. Benjamin tends to struggle with catching short passes with his hands, while excelling at good form on long or high balls. The Panthers ran short plays almost exclusively last year, so he'll need to get used to catching those passes away from his body. This is a consistency issue, however, as Benjamin runs the same route and perfectly catches a very similar pass later in the game.
7:10 - A great effort by Benjamin on a long ball, but his apparently unconscious desire to jump for passes costs him a touchdown after he checks his dive and stumbles. It's a great play, but it could have been even better with no one close enough to make a play on him if he catches it in stride. The desire to leave his feet is one of Benjamin's biggest issues, and shows up in other games as well. It's probably a big reason he didn't have an even better year, and even showed up on an inside look at the OTAs as he unnecessarily hopped towards a Cam Newton pass.
7:46 - We get to see how Benjamin's blocking fares against someone who knows how to rush.
8:27 - Benjamin hops up for a ball he probably could have just run underneath. The DB isn't even in the same area code, and Benjamin's jump actually brings the defender close enough to make a play. Without the jump, Benjamin probably shakes off an arm tackle, leaving him one on one with the safety for a TD.
8:57 - We get a look at Benjamin's normal blocking effort, straight up and down. It's away from the play, so even in the NFL he's probably not going to get a penalty there, but he still got a piece of jersey and came pretty close to looking like he just wrapped the DB in a bear hug. The next play is better form when blocking, again consistency in most small things is probably Benjamin's most glaring issue.
FSU vs Duke
The Duke game was relatively mistake free. If the Florida game was a showcase of how his talent can overcome his problems, then the ACC Championship shows what you could expect from a Benjamin who doesn't have concentration and effort lapses. It shows Benjamin at his most consistent when catching the ball, which is a good thing because he's on a big stage. None of this means there's nothing here for Benjamin to work on though.
4:53 - Benjamin's bad blocking technique and high center of gravity come back to bite him as he's challenged by a much smaller player on a crucial block, and earns a holding call as he fails to drive while engaged and allows the DB outside of his shoulder pads. Even if he had driven the block, Benjamin's hands are on the outside of the DB's shoulder pads, which likely would have earned him a hold anyways.
5:48 - We see Benjamin being driven back inside by a smaller player, and with his hands full of jersey on the outside of the man he's charged with blocking. Away from the play, so no penalty, but still poor technique. He needs to work on fighting his hands inside, sinking his hips and walling off the defender by putting his body between them and the ball. Even on plays where the ball isn't coming near him it would be nice to see him working for a block. With a cutback style runner like DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, the Panthers WRs' ability to keep DBs pinned towards the sideline are often key elements of long runs.
7:28 - Perhaps knowing the ball isn't coming his way, Benjamin cuts off his route immediately after being contested. In the NFL, there's no guarantee the ball isn't going to come your way, and no reason to stop on a slant to a wide open area of the field - especially not when you're caught on camera standing around while the QB still has the ball in his hands.
7:37 - This is how Benjamin needs to block on every down. Decent pad level for his height, he gets a hand inside and keeps feet churning while using leverage instead of physical size. Textbook blocking, undermined by the RT swinging a bit wide on the pulling block.
FSU vs Boston College
A rather short bit of tape involving Benjamin versus BC. A lot of Benjamin's blocking in this game is effortless, he doesn't play to the whistle and again we can see his hands on the outside of the defenders' shoulder pads.
0:00 - The very first play of the game. Benjamin slips and recovers, but makes no effort come back to a ball arriving well after he's back on his feet. The result is very nearly an early pick six. Benjamin has an excuse for not making a catch, he doesn't have one for not even trying to swat it down.
0:17 - Benjamin makes the catch, but in the NFL he'd be setting himself up for a "welcome to the league" type hit from a well positioned safety. Not only is it asking to be smacked down like that time Sheldon Brown almost broke Reggie Bush in half, but Benjamin also skies for a catch he probably could have safely snagged over his shoulder. Catching it over his shoulder would have eliminated a trio of problems with his technique.
First and foremost it would have made it much harder for him to be potentially forced out - he's probably not going to get that much separation against an NFL DB, meaning he's probably just going to get pushed out before he can land - dragging feet already on the ground is also way easier. Second, he would have been forced to catch with his hands, instead of jumping up to body the football. Third, and likely most important in the NFL, catching over the shoulder would have allowed him to shield the defender from his hands, essentially taking away the opportunity to make a play. To bring back up good ol' Smitty again, his TD against San Fran in this year's divisional playoffs was a great example of how Benjamin could have played the pass.
3:22 - Benjamin takes just a slight step towards pass, waiting for the ball rather than driving back towards it and using his exceptional physical gifts to highpoint it. The result is an Iinterception instead of a completed pass for a big gain. It was a terrible decision on Winston's part, but with Benjamin's talents he could have given his QB an out. This play is another good example of how Benjamin often fails to bring his feet with him while trying to catch short-thrown passes - though Cam Newton does have some high overthrows, a lot of his passes were exactly like this one, but in situations where Benjamin is going to have to give a lot more effort than he would have had to here. Remember, Cam is used to throwing really low on contested balls after three seasons with Smitty, who is excellent at those driving dive's back to the football. Low and away passes have become Newton's go-to safe throws in tight coverage, so Benjamin will need to get used to them.
FSU vs NC State
2:14 - While Benjamin (top of the screen) isn't the target of the play, it would be nice to see him continue working towards open space in the event that the man going over the top fails to get open. This is a slightly deeper version of the very first play I looked at when Winston got sacked and Benjamin was caught standing still instead of working back to the ball.
2:30 - Another bad throw by Winston, who shouldn't have let go of the football at all, but another throw Benjamin might have been able to catch if he worked back to the ball instead of staying where he was and waiting for it to come to him.
4:06 - Benjamin gets open down the field, and loses the football after contact, giving up an interception. There were a couple similar incidents over the course of watching these videos where I thought Benjamin could have either fought through or been more composed during contact. On the third look it's clear Benjamin just didn't do much to secure the football after the catch. This hit in particular wasn't terribly hard, and there's no real reason for Benjamin to have dropped the ball. He'll see similar contact often in the NFL if he's heading over the middle, and with his size it's a good bet he'll be doing that a lot.
FSU vs Clemson
0:00 - Another effortless block by Benjamin, this time resulting in his man making the tackle. His blocking issues are a theme throughout the season, and while it's fun to watch him pancake inattentive DBs here and there, how he blocks on every other down is a far more important point of emphasis. He has a lot of technique work to do in this area.
3:40 - Benjamin spends a little bit too much time hand-checking his DB instead of fighting to go for the pass, and ends up barely even getting off the ground. Benjamin got away with a lot of contact at FSU last year, and on this play, with his size and where the ball was thrown, there was absolutely no excuse for an incompletion. In the NFL, it's probably going to be offensive pass interference to boot thanks to Benjamin extending his arms. As good as he is in the red zone, Benjamin probably left a handful more on the table due to mistakes like this one.
Benjamin has some really exciting upside. When he plays consistently and takes advantage of his size, he's great. He doesn't do that often enough, though. He has some issues with jump timing, and jumping long instead of high. He also likes to jump, which isn't always a good thing. He has the potential to blow people up while blocking, but really needs to get more technically consistent. Like LaFell before him, he needs to work on keeping him motor running on plays not called to him or in his direction. We'll have to wait until training camp to see if a lot of these things get remedied, but they're definitely worth keeping an eye on. Here's hoping he can conquer the little things.