In 2015, Cam Newton won MVP, ran one of the most enterprising and unusual offenses in league history, tossed 35 touchdown passes … and he did it all with Ted Ginn Jr. as his no. 1 receiver. Yes, returner-first, receiver-with-a-case-of-the-dropsies-second Ginn was Carolina’s most dangerous threat on the outside last year, and yes, the Panthers still led the NFL in scoring.
Enter Kelvin Benjamin, the 2014 rookie sensation who lost his entire sophomore season to an ACL tear. With the 25-year-old Benjamin back on the field, Newton reunites with his go-to guy on third downs and gets another big body to throw to in the red zone. Normally you have to make a trade, sign a free agent, or use a draft pick in order to make such an upgrade, but just due to the passing of time and the healing ability of the human body, the Panthers come into the 2016 season having added a star-quality receiver to an already-elite offense.
In 2014, Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. Newton looked his way a lot, and the former Seminole racked up 142 targets, the most for a rookie receiver since 2007 and 10th most in the NFL that year. Since Benjamin’s last game, Ginn has returned to the team and Devin Funchess and Corey Brown have emerged as legitimate receiving options, so while Benjamin instantly becomes Carolina’s best wideout, Newton won’t need to force-feed him with reckless abandon.
Instead, the Panthers can stick with last year’s winning recipe, lining up in heavy formations — they had two tight ends or six offensive linemen on the field 51 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the NFL — and running the ball a lot. Those beefy formations don’t just generate a punishing ground attack; they facilitate the Panthers’ passing game, too. Carolina frequently kept an extra blocker or two in to protect Newton so he would have enough time to push the ball down the field to Ginn and tight end Greg Olsen. Newton finished the year with an average depth of target of 10.9 yards, second only to Carson Palmer.
Benjamin simply slides back into his role as the primary X receiver for the Panthers. He provides those true no. 1 traits that no other receiver on the Panthers roster has been able to recreate in his absence: size, physicality, and toughness at the catch point.
There aren’t many players in the league with Benjamin’s catch radius. Newton frequently trusted his 6-foot-5 target to go up and get jump balls, and defenses simply don’t have players his size that can run down the field. In 2014, Newton would frequently throw the ball where only Benjamin could reach it, high above the defensive backs and out toward the sideline. These types of passes — from Carolina’s Week 16 win over the Browns and Week 8 loss to the Seahawks — are where Benjamin really stands out. He times his jumps perfectly, uses his excellent hands, and grabs the ball at its high point.
Expect fade routes to be a big part of Benjamin’s game in 2016. When smaller defensive backs play off of him, he can work up the field, pivot, and essentially just box them out. On these two touchdowns — from Week 7 against the Packers and Week 11 against the Falcons — Benjamin gets the defender on his hip, and there’s nothing he can do.
Press coverage isn’t necessarily the answer, either. Against the Saints in Week 14, Benjamin used a savvy, subtle, and well-timed push-off to beat Keenan Lewis for the touchdown.
Newton’s ability to run (10 touchdowns in 2015) already makes the Panthers one of the most deadly red zone offenses in the league. They led the NFL in red zone scoring percentage last year, converting nearly 70 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns. But the addition of Benjamin makes them basically unstoppable near the end zone.
It’s not all fades and back-shoulder throws to the sideline, though. As a rookie, Benjamin caught more balls running slants than any other route. And again, it all comes down to his body control. On these two plays — against the Eagles in Week 10 and the Seahawks in the playoffs — once he sets up the defensive back toward the sideline, he uses his size to shield the defender from the ball.
Of course, the connection between Newton and Benjamin is still only a season old — and it’s far from perfect. In 2014, Newton completed only about half of the passes he threw Benjamin’s way, and just 84 of those 142 throws were even catchable. And like many of the Panthers receivers, Benjamin had issues with drops on the ones that were.
Benjamin still isn’t a complete receiver. He can improve on go routes down the field, and he’ll have to become a better blocker in Carolina’s run game, but you can’t teach size, and both Benjamin and the Panthers know how to utilize it. They’ll go to him frequently on out routes, drag routes, slants, and post routes over the middle of the field, and the end zone fade will be a staple.
With Benjamin’s unique skill set again at Newton’s disposal, Carolina’s offense could become more consistent on third downs (the Panthers converted just 35.7 percent of their third-down passes into first downs last year, 18th in the league) and more explosive down the field (Newton completed 52 passes of 20-plus yards, 13th in the NFL). Benjamin’s presence should help the Panthers extend more drives and hit more shot plays, making the NFL’s most prolific point-scorers even more efficient.